The date was April 19th, 2015. Toronto FC had just suffered their fourth consecutive defeat, in a game delayed hours by torrential thunderstorms, only wrapping up in the early morning for TFC fans watching from home.
The prolonged agony of watching TFC fall to yet another opponent on the road, combined with physical exhaustion from staying up so late, and likely the intense inebriation that had become a requirement of watching the Reds' futile efforts, had Toronto fans throwing up their arms and shouting out the usual premature TFC imploration: FIRE OUR COACH!
Since that dreadful night-turned morning, Vanney has absolutely righted the ship, leading his troops to six wins, two losses and a draw in MLS play. Throughout the course of those nine matches, supporters lauded Sebastian Giovinco's brilliance. They complimented the surprisingly consistent play of young Canadian fullback Ashtone Morgan. They applauded the improved performance of Michael Bradley who had clearly become a significant contributor in his new position at the top of the midfield diamond.
Fans were even discussing Eriq Zavaleta's (mostly) solid presence at center back, a welcome change from the inconsistencies that Nick Hagglund used to show when he was a fixture in the starting eleven.
But few have talked about Greg Vanney. Alas, so is the life of a coach- if you succeed, your players get the glory, while if you fail, fans start calling for your head. Well let's take a minute to look back and appreciate what the gaffer has done for our beloved Reds.
The four consecutive losses on the road were partly, and some would even argue largely, a result of Greg Vanney's strategic stubbornness. Vanney's inclination to push Toronto's fullbacks further up, exposing the flanks and leaving the center backs isolated (only joined at times by holding midfielders to defend against inevitable counter-attacks), culminated in a string of bad results for the club.
The coach's inability to find an effective use for team captain Michael Bradley also contributed to TFC's quick decline, with Bradley more often than not trying to do too much- gathering the ball deep in his own half while failing to factor into most of TFC's attacking opportunities.
But things changed. The fullbacks stopped pressing so high up, the midfield changed from a forward pointing triangle to more of a straight four, and TFC generally played Ryan Nelsen-style 4-4-2 football for a couple games. And it worked.
The team pulled off a couple great results on the road. Then came the hiccup that was Toronto's home opener. That poor performance, combined with a failure to advance in the Canadian Championship and narrowly avoiding an away loss in Foxboro (thank you Konopka), had Vanney again heading to the strategy room.
This led to the incarnation of TFC that we have today. Sure, Greg Vanney has all the tools in his arsenal to be successful. And of course, who knows what would happen if Sebastian Giovinco didn't exist. But the fact of the matter is, what Greg Vanney has been able to achieve, in particular over the last 4 to 5 matches (four wins and a loss in five now), is very impressive.
Vanney took a left back and threw him onto an unfamiliar side of the pitch. He grabbed a young Canadian fullback off the bench, a player whose inconsistency had led to him falling out of favor with management and fans alike, and inserted him right into the starting eleven. He called on a young center back who had played a grand total of 15 MLS matches, and paired him up with a European veteran who had never played "North American ball" prior to this season. He took a box-to-box midfielder, and thrust him into an attacking role at the top of a midfield diamond. He dealt with injuries to a star striker and starting keeper. He even needed to use Warren Creavalle (enough said). And the craziest part of all- Greg Vanney then asked the fullbacks to go back to doing what had partly led to those disastrous results just weeks prior, pushing further up the field and frequently joining in on the attack.
Before anyone gets carried away, I'm not saying I'm convinced Greg Vanney is a good coach. Toronto FC does have a few fantastic stand-out players, and they have largely been carrying the load, even single-handedly winning games for the Reds.
But the fact remains- the team, as a whole, has improved over the last few games. Vanney has found a way to get the best out of a lot of players. TFC, for once, has a winning record. And unlike previous Toronto coaches (yes, bar so low it's in the damn basement), the majority of Vanney's substitutions are, at the very least, understandable moves, some bordering on downright intelligent.
TFC's upcoming matches during the Gold Cup, with the absences of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and Ashtone Morgan from the starting eleven, will undoubtedly be Vanney's greatest test to date this year. For many, it will be a key determinant of his ability to lead an average squad of MLS players... plus Sebastian Giovinco, to success.
But in the meantime, let's appreciate what he has done, or at least contributed to, with TFC's current run of form. Most recently, Vanney took a team that was battered and bruised by the bullies form the Bronx, and turned them into ruthless success-hungry winners in a matter of days. Last night, we were all witnesses to one of TFC's greatest matches in the team's history, a game that was tremendously enjoyable to watch, and a victory that propelled TFC back to a winning record in league play. And for all that, today, for now, I am thankful. Keep it up, Greg.