If you ask any Toronto FC player or fan, they will tell you that Greg Vanney is more than a coach—he is a figurehead.
Vanney’s stature in the city approaches legendary, and come match day, his stature on the field is an MLS standard: smart dress, pocketed hands, and that trademark look of steely focus have all become familiar fixtures for TFC’s chief strategist. What’s more is that his presence, with all its unique affectations, brings the Reds and their fans a tangible degree of confidence.
This is for good reason: he guided Toronto out of mediocrity (to put it generously) and into legitimate contention in the span of only a few years. Toronto’s victory over NYCFC this past Saturday marks his 100th victory as head coach of TFC. To commemorate, we’re taking a look back to how it all began, and how the foundation was laid for the modern Reds.
A Bloody Big Mess
Greg Vanney’s beginning with TFC was far from optimistic. To be it curtly, he inherited a mess.
Some of the older heads will remember the media circus that surrounded Jermain Defoe, the English international who was tagged by the football pundits to be Toronto FC’s saviour in 2014. The “Bloody Big Deal”, as it was coined then, also saw the addition of Michael Bradley (whose mettle would prove captain-worthy before the end of that season) and the return of Dwayne De Rosario (one of TFC’s classical heroes from the early years).
Defoe’s individual skill, however, nor his pairings with Bradley or De Rosario, translated to a better team or a better record. Near the end of a dying season, after a very public falling out between Toronto’s coach Ryan Nelsen and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko which saw the former fired, a change was made.
Greg Vanney, a Chivas USA assistant, was brought in to salvage a fractured squad and a 9–9–6 record.
“I think we need to change the energy, be more aggressive, be potentially less careful about making mistakes and looking to be more aggressive,” said Vanney of Toronto FC then, few knowing just how much he meant to manifest those words over the coming years.
However, his inexperience was stronger than his intention in his first year, and the Reds finished with a dismal 11-15-8 record. TFC brass were willing to give him a full chance, however, and Vanney maintained his position as coach for the following season.
On January 16, 2015, Jermain Defoe returned to Europe to play for Sunderland, but from Sunderland, TFC received Jozy Altidore. Only three days later, Toronto FC signed Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus. These two players, alongside Bradley, were the pillars on which Greg Vanney would rebuild the team.
The Long Road to Relevance
But 2015 was not the break out year many hoped for. Despite small improvements around the pitch, TFC continued to lack consistency. By midseason, rumours of a potential firing began to circulate, and by the end of the summer, Vanney was in a position very similar to that of his predecessor.
However, the firing never came. Toronto FC ended the season 15-15-4 and made the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in its history. Furthermore, Giovinco was having a revelatory year, dominating the highlight reel, winning the MLS Golden Boot (with 22 goals), MLS MVP, and MLS Newcomer of the Year.
All of which was nice—as these little successes bought Vanney clout—but pointless when Toronto went down 3-0 to Canadian rival Montreal Impact in the first round of the playoffs.
It was only in 2016 when things really started to change for Toronto. Bradley’s command of both the midfield and the defence truly began to show, and the attacking duo of Altidore and Giovinco had become more than convincing.
Greg Vanney himself was truly starting to show his knack for leadership, able to suss out minute vulnerabilities in the team and improve on them accretively in every subsequent match. Most of all, the players and the organization were starting to trust him.
By the end of the season TFC had a record of 14-9-11, the first time the Reds had ever seen a positive record, had beaten Vancouver to claim the Canadian Championship, and found their way to the MLS Cup Final where they would square off against the Seattle Sounders.
Many will remember the heartbreak of that day not simply because of the defeat, but because that defeat came by way of penalties after TFC dominated in regular time.
For the head coach, who was haunted by the threat of a sharpened axe only a year prior, glory had eluded him by the slimmest of margins; but unbeknownst to him, glory had only been delayed.
The Best MLS Team Ever
Toronto FC marched into 2017 like a team possessed. The offence was scoring with ruthless efficiency, the midfield was adapting quickly to opponents, and the defence was shutting down foreign attempts like an American border guard.
In June of that year, Toronto FC defeated Montreal Impact 2-1 to win The Voyageurs Cup. By the end of the season, they had also claimed the Supporters’ Shield with 20-5-9 record and the most points of any team in MLS history with 69. (LAFC’s incredible run in 2019 now holds that title with 72 points.)
By November, Vanney and his brigade had once more claimed a spot in the MLS Cup Final and were again facing a familiar foe in the Seattle Sounders.
This time their bout went differently.
“Far more teams would have caved than teams that would have persevered through this ... We still managed to persevere and get the results we need in difficult times,” Vanney said after being named Coach of the Year following Toronto’s MLS Cup victory. “That to me is the most important discussion because the only way you achieve goals is if you have the right attitude every day when you go out to work.”
The Century Club
Certainly no history of Greg Vanney is complete without mention TFC’s 2018 and 2019 seasons—2018 was dreadful and 2019 had an excruciating end. However, they are proof more of Vanney’s resilience to endure all and overcome as much.
If one considers how close TFC came to securing the first non-Mexican CONCACAF Champion’s League title (due in large part Vanney’s bold strategic decisions against seasoned opponents, many of which were—on paper—better than TFC), 2018 becomes an unfortunate anomaly; and, if one considers how poorly the Reds started the following season, 2019’s playoff blitz becomes a nigh-impossible feat.
Despite it all, Vanney remains as confident as ever. And as determined. His bent toward an aggressive, possession-oriented game of football has served TFC very well as they have grown as a squad to be legitimately feared in the East.
All of which casts 2018 and 2019 into an odd light when compared to the build up of the previous years—Greg Vanney is acting in 2020 like neither of them happened; he is as hungry now as the very first day he joined the squad as head coach and part time bail-bondsman.
Even now, he is hungry for only one thing: success. In this, his appetite has not waned.
Though, it comes at the beginning of the season, his 100th win is proof of his character and his mastery of tactics, communication and leadership. It is less an accolade and more a marker that he is far from finished, and that the heights of glory he has achieved so far with Toronto FC are—to his mind—merely footnotes in the grand narrative of his tenure.