Greg Vanney is the ninth different man to take on the role of head coach at Toronto FC. He has one thing in common with the eight coaches that came before him in that fans have little idea what to expect from him thanks to his limited previous experience as a head coach.
His CV coming in to the job is highlighted by his work with four different MLS academies. He helped get Real Salt Lakes academy program to where it is now, served as a coach with the Los Angles Galaxy's U-14 academy team, and was most recently in charge of Toronto FC's academy program while also serving as the Assistant General Manager.
The most important line on his resume is his time at Chivas USA where he served as an assistant coach under Robin Fraser as well as running the club's academy program. So we know that he has plenty of experience working with youth players and has professional playing experience but his coaching experience with the senior team is limited to a stretch from 2011 to 2012 with a Chivas USA team that struggled to get consistent results leading up to Fraser, along with Vanney, being fired.
We know that Vanney does have some coaching education to draw on since the end of his playing days. He has completed his USSF "A" Coaching license and is taking part in the Elite Formation Coaching License which was the initiative that MLS launched along with French soccer to train coaches in their academy programs. Vanney is one of two coaches connected to TFC that is taking part in that course along with Danny Dichio.
With little history to go on all fans can do until Wednesday evening, when they see TFC in action under Vanney for the first time, is take the man at his word. During the press conference on Sunday that saw Vanney introduced as the new Head Coach he seemed deliberate in his intentions to set himself apart from Ryan Nelsen.
The formal portion of the press conference ran for nearly thirty minutes but the majority of that time did not focus on what Vanney will bring to the table as the new coach. There were a whole lot of questions about the future of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley but somewhere between all the off topic questions fans could get a sense of how Vanney intends to change things.
"First and foremost I think it is the energy that we are putting out on the field. I think we need to change the energy, we need to be more aggressive, we need to be potentially less fearful of making mistakes and looking to be more aggressive to try to go get three points and not necessarily not lose two points or not lose three points. So the priority here is to so of unleash the players a little bit and take the burden and allow them to express themselves and just change the energy. I think over the last several games we've looked energyless, really, and I think our team is at its best when we're out and we're sprinting, we're running, and we're getting after other teams so I think there is a lot of potential here and in speaking with the guys it is something that they are excited about. They want to go. They want to go and try to get results."
That approach to the game actually sounds familiar to what we saw at the start of the season under Nelsen. In fact, the team started last season that way as well with a lot of high pressing and high energy. Early in this year it was producing results as the team spent most of the game on the front foot and got after opponents right from the first kick. A few goals from simple turnovers or from quick counter attacks were enough to get TFC off to a strong start. The issue was more often that once the team took the lead they sat back and tried to defend that lead rather than continuing with that pressure that was working.
The intensity and pressure did seem to drop off over the summer months. It may have been due to the far more compact schedule than the team had early in the season but as the pressure and intensity dropped so to did the results. If Vanney can sustain that kind of pressure over the remaining ten games (and hopefully beyond) it might just be enough to bring some excitement back.
"I think this team has been built this season in a specific way so I think its looking at the assets that we have and the guys who we believe can make a difference, which is across the board. We have a lot of talent on this team and it's fitting them into a system, but more than into a system but into a plan so an identity that matches the group that we have, that they believe in, and that they understand their roles individually and collectively and that they understand what we are trying to do tactically as a group with small adjustments on any given day based on the opponent but for us it's to make sure that everybody is on the same page."
Again there is really nothing radical about what Vanney is saying there. The team showed early in the season that they have the quality to win games when they are healthy. Even the roster as it currently stands has enough quality to get better results than they have in recent weeks. If the team was built to play as a 4-4-2 then it would make sense for Vanney to continue to line them up that way rather than trying to make square pegs fit in to round holes. For the most part it sounds like we should be something similar to what Nelsen was doing but with a slightly different focus.
"My first concern is the energy with which we start the game. For me yesterday the first pass was backwards, then it was square, then it was backwards again, and we start the game on our own half of the field. That's not an energy positive way to start the game especially when you come off of a long game prep, getting ready for that first whistle. For me I have always believed in lets put the ball in the oppositions half and lets start to put them under some pressure and immediately start to build our energy into the game and then go from there. Then start to build towards our strategy and our tactical concepts for the game. For me the starts have been a little bit passive and a little bit negative and we need to be more aggressive right at the start and I think that will be an initial help"
If that is true then it won't take long for fans to get their first taste of what will be different under Vanney. When the team takes to the field against the Philadelphia Union we should expect them to try and come out swinging from the opening whistle. It should at least mean excitement from the start which has been missing in recent weeks.
"In terms of conceding goals I think we need to be a little stronger, a little firmer, in holding our ground and not giving away space so much. We need to be a little more compact, a little closer together, so that we can work together collectively and that we can cover each other in time. Again looking back at yesterday's goals, all of them came from somebody basically dribbling right down the middle of the field with nobody stepping to or closing it down and a shot from distance. We've got to feel more comfortable that we can stay more compact and be able to step up out of our lines and confront balls and that we are going to get support and cover around the field. There's definitely things that we need to address. I envy the challenge and I think the guys are up for it."
Sounds quite simple in theory but it will be interesting to see how Vanney manages to get achieve that compact shape. It should have been easy for Nelsen to do with Michael Bradley and Collen Warner patrolling the space in front of the centre backs but they seemed to be pulled out of position to often with no one else there to cover them.
The big task that Vanney may have to undertake in achieving a more compact shape is getting the wingers to take on more defensive responsibility. If one of the CBs has to step up to challenge the ball and cut off a run through the middle of the park the means that someone has to shift in to cover that space. Most often that someone is going to be one of the outside backs which leaves the wing exposed and while that is not quite as dangerous as leaving space in the middle of the field it is still an area that needs to be covered. Covering that should come down to the wingers who have not really had that responsibility this season.
If the wingers buy in the team should be able to defend better as a unit and then counter attack as a unit. It may even improve the way the team attacks as the wingers won't be so far down the field which means less targets for long balls. Even the small tactical changes that Vanney seems set to make could make a big difference in the short term considering the team will not have to adjust to doing things all that differently.
There is nothing about Vanney's approach as he outlined it at his introductory press conference that could be considered radical. He seems set to focus on getting the best out of the players that he has and that could mean a new lease on life for some players who seemed to fall completely out of favour under Nelsen. Fans could even get their first sighting off Ashtone Morgan since the first game of the season and we might see a bit more of Bright Dike. That might be the one area where Vanney is able to make the most radical changes in this team.