The last time Greg Vanney coached a professional soccer match, he recorded his 100th win as head coach of Toronto FC.
That is 82 more wins than any other manager put up in the dark days before 2014, in fact, it’s more than all of the others combined. In his six seasons in charge, Vanney lifted five trophies, led the club to four major finals and was named the 2017 Concacaf and MLS Coach of the Year.
In between those honours, it has hardly been smooth sailing. There were calls for Vanney’s head shortly after he was hired, given his lack of experience and the culmination of yet another disappointing season for the reds. The naysayers came out again when Toronto FC was embarrassed in their first playoff game, with incoming President Bill Manning even considering replacing him.
Even after he had delivered an MLS Cup and the best season in league history, Vanney again found himself in hot water, at least among the fan base, the past two years. But he has always emerged on the other side of those difficult periods a better coach.
The next time Greg Vanney coaches a professional soccer match, it will look quite different. The MLS is Back tournament will be a challenge like no other. During the next few weeks, Toronto’s coach will have an opportunity to show how much he has grown.
It comes at a time when the Toronto coach is in the last year of his contract. It is fully expected that he will be extended, the organization has made clear its intentions to do so, but success at this tournament would clearly strengthen his negotiations.
Tournament management is just different; there isn’t nearly as much room for mistakes. Your group is together for multiple weeks, away from home without a real break from each other so there is potentially more man-management work. Squad rotation is a must but also needs to be done very carefully to ensure key players are properly in form for knockout matches. Often, there are no home games and the surroundings are unfamiliar.
This means managers who have tournament experience during their career should, in theory, have an advantage. Think Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Tab Ramos… even a newer coach like Thierry Henry who has both played and managed in multiple high level tournaments.
In a pandemic landscape, that is only the beginning. Vanney has raised very legitimate questions about whether or not this tournament should even be happening. Everyone in the organization has the very real right to feel concerned for their health, and it is against that backdrop that Vanney will try to keep his team united and motivated. That goes for play on the field and staying in their team bubble off the field.
That bubble and the unique circumstances will mean playing games at unusual times. Toronto FC’s opening match is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. against D.C. United on Sunday. While that is meant to avoid the Orlando heat, that will still be a significant factor in player recovery time and energy levels.
From a tournament format standpoint, perhaps the biggest wrinkle is the importance of group games. For a club like Toronto FC who almost certainly have Supporters’ Shield aspirations, that means just getting out of the group in good status isn’t the goal. It is picking up as many points as possible.
Then, ideally, come the knockout games, complete with the chance to return to the Concacaf Champions League. Again, not every club values continental competition equally. For Toronto FC it is a priority. With no promises as to what will happen after this tournament, this might be the team’s best and only shot at qualification.
From a player perspective, it isn’t exactly an ideal situation. Vanney’s captain, Michael Bradley, hasn’t played a game since MLS Cup 2019 and is coming off of an injury. His biggest scoring threat, Jozy Altidore, barely trained with the team and won’t be ready for the first game. His third most expensive player, Pablo Piatti, is coming off an injury of his own and has yet to suit up for the reds. Even before his injury, and this unique tournament, Toronto FC were talking load management with the Argentine.
That’s just a sampling; no player on the entire squad will be at full fitness. Changes to the schedule that will likely mean less time between matches won’t help either. This isn’t an issue unique to Toronto FC, which might mean that whichever coach can manage their squad the best will win the tournament. Vanney might need to lean on more players than usual during this short tournament and it’s up to him and his staff to get the combinations right. It also means leaning on some young and unproven players, something Vanney has largely be loath to do during this time in charge.
New rules mean he now has five substitutions at his disposal as well and for a deep and talented Toronto FC side that could be invaluable. Like every other coach in the soccer world, Vanney now needs to learn how to use these extra chess pieces to his advantage. He hasn’t always been the best at using his bench effectively but showed some serious strides in last year’s playoffs when well-timed substitutes played critical roles in getting the team to the MLS Cup final.
All that said, Vanney is certainly going to earn his salary at this tournament. If he can lead this team to success over the next couple of weeks, it will show another layer of his managerial ability. If he can pull another rabbit out of his hat, it will be clearer than ever that he should be kept at the helm of this group for the foreseeable future.