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Red Bulletin: Vanney’s big gamble pays off

The Toronto FC coach chopped and changed his lineup in the last few weeks of the season but got it right when it mattered most.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto  FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Vanney certainly kept everyone guessing.

When Toronto FC came back after the international break at the beginning of September, they started every single game remaining in their MLS regular season with a 4-4-2 diamond formation - except the last one against the Chicago Fire, when they switched to 3-5-2.

They tried numerous different midfield combinations, with Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio constant presences at the tips of the diamond but a variety of players filling the other two spots.

They tested three different strikers alongside Jozy Altidore while Sebastian Giovinco was injured and tried both Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta at centre-back alongside Drew Moor.

All of that only to switch the formation with one game to go.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto  FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

We might never know exactly what Vanney’s thought process was. Perhaps he needed that extended period of experimentation to settle on his best lineup. Perhaps he was trying to throw opposition teams off. Perhaps he wanted his own team to be able to adapt to different shapes and styles.

It was probably all three of those things, to differing extents. The most important thing for the club - and for Vanney’s future - is that it has panned out, with the Reds entering the Eastern Conference semi-final they needed a knockout game to play into with the added confidence and momentum of already having a convincing playoff win under their belt.

It’s unlikely to decide a tie at least 180 minutes long, but New York City FC’s first task on Sunday will be to navigate an opening 20 minutes at BMO Field in which Toronto will try to bury them early while they are getting to grips with the pace of the postseason.

Having achieved a record points haul in the regular season and reached uncharted territory in the playoffs, the TFC hierarchy can surely now exhale in the knowledge that they will not need to consider a coaching change this summer. Vanney has delivered the progress that was asked for and will almost certainly continue in 2017.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto  FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

That does not mean, however, that everyone can now put their feet up and celebrate a job well done. Toronto will be a lucky team every single year they have a core of players as strong as this one. They are even luckier, this year, to have all of them - particularly some of the unsung heroes like Justin Morrow and Jonathan Osorio - seemingly fit and firing at exactly the right time. They must make the most of it.

“We’re all very aware that it’s just the first step for us through this process, this postseason,” Vanney said in his post-game press conference on Wednesday night. “You could feel [the anticipation] a little bit but the guys came out and we knew it was going to be just a change of intensity and I think hopefully the fans and those of you watching could feel it.

“I was right next to the field and just the speed of the game and the tension of the game was just a different level than any of the regular-season games that we’ve participated in. It was great that the guys... they were ready for it. And I think that’s what caught us last year, we weren’t quite ready for it.

“This year, we were ready for it. And we set the tone with it.”

Recommended reading

Laura Armstrong of the Star spoke to a few fans about the meaning of the club’s first home playoff game on Wednesday.

Rudi Schuller of Sporting News recaps Toronto FC’s first playoff win.

If you missed it earlier in the week, Sportsnet had an excellent exclusive interview with Sebastian Giovinco.

The Red Bulletin is Waking the Red’s morning update on Toronto FC, wider MLS talking points and more. Related and unrelated chat below the line is welcome.