MLS will name its Coach of the Year for 2017 on Monday. Here’s three reasons I believe Toronto FC’s Greg Vanney should be the recipient.
1. Toronto don’t get enough style points
A common criticism, if it can be called that, of sides so dominant that they come to be disliked is that they are powerhouses who roll teams over without much flair.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United got it all the time, and so did Jose Mourinho’s (first) Chelsea. It’s an accusation that has been levelled at Real Madrid in recent years.
Even Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Vicente del Bosque’s Spain, once they had reached the point where their mastery of possession was almost total, became so brilliant as to (ridiculously) be labelled boring.
Toronto are not Barca - even with Victor Vazquez providing a taste of the Catalan recipe - but they did win the Supporters’ Shield in a fashion that was more commanding than typical and seem to have come to be seen as more machine than artisan as a result.
But the (subjective and highly debatable) view that the likes of Atlanta, Chicago and New York City FC are more aesthetically pleasing than TFC should not knock points off Vanney’s score for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, if Vanney wanted to attack freely at all times at the expense of his team’s defensive record he would be perfectly capable of doing that and taking the purists’ plaudits. His pragmatism should not be viewed as a negative so long as it doesn’t become fear, which it hasn’t.
Secondly, Toronto scored more goals than anyone else in MLS during the regular season.
They were one of few playoff teams to use two strikers. Their most technical player (Vazquez) plays in midfield, not pushed higher up to mask any defensive deficiencies. Their holding midfielder (Michael Bradley) is first and foremost a ball player. They have probably the most attacking full-back or wing-back (Justin Morrow) in the league. Their centre-backs are expected to be comfortable in possession.
It should also be noted that Vanney rotated his side during the early and middle parts of the season to a much greater extent than both Martino and Paunovic, which comes at the expense of compromising performances in the meantime.
Toronto were good enough through that to still win the Shield at a canter and went into the playoffs injury-free and without a number of healthy players looking physically spent.
2. It’s not all about the money
Yes, Toronto have the highest payroll in the league and yes, they should absolutely expect to be a perennial contender given that fact.
But that doesn’t negate the work Vanney has done to put this team on the verge of a second consecutive MLS Cup final with the league’s points record in the bag.
He has regularly put his trust in young players such as Alex Bono and Raheem Edwards and can take particular credit for the way he has taken Marky Delgado and Eriq Zavaleta off the scrapheap and nurtured them into everyday MLSers.
He has instilled in Toronto a level of tactical flexibility that is unmatched around the league. TFC can switch effortlessly between a back three and back four and adapt to most scenarios with ease despite the fact that one of the few drawbacks of their biggest strength - the fact they have two top strikers - is that it limits their options in terms of formation.
And, perhaps most notably of all, Vanney has earned the respect and trust of three of MLS’ biggest personalities. It has been particularly striking how Bradley and Jozy Altidore have often seemed almost relieved to get back to Toronto after international duty this year.
Finding the balance between giving the designated players a degree of freedom and ensuring the team remains a cohesive unit has been a persistent problem for North American coaches, but Vanney seems to have cracked it.
3. A superb big-game record
Only one of Toronto’s five losses during the regular season came against a team that made the playoffs, and that was back in April.
Normally, it was a combination of key absences or individual errors that killed Toronto. Almost never - seriously, can you name one occasion? - did they come out of a game, win or lose, feeling like their coach had been tactically outmatched.
There was the superb win in Seattle without Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco. There was the fall run that saw Paunovic, Patrick Vieira and Caleb Porter have their pants pulled down. Only Martino, Gregg Berhalter, Mauro Biello and - questionably - Jesse Marsch showed any signs of getting the better of Vanney, and none ended the regular season with winning records against him.
Those four coaches combined took less than a point-per-game off of Vanney.
The argument for both Martino and Paunovic is going to run along much the same lines: that they started basically from scratch and ended up two points off a first-round bye, whereas Toronto were always expected to be good.
Both coaches can pat themselves on the back for a job well done, but that neither club is anywhere near as far along the line as Toronto is exactly why Vanney should win.
The (coaching) work that had been done to get TFC to this point was Vanney’s, after all. 2017 was the season in which - MLS Cup or not - his construction of this team came to a brilliant head, and that should be enough to earn a first Coach of the Year honour.