Toronto FC may have won six straight games, but this recent stretch hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Injuries, illness and a condensed coast-to-coast travel schedule have all plagued TFC over the past week and a bit.
There must be a trash can somewhere filled with gameplans that Greg Vanney and his staff created and then had to scrap as circumstances changed. They have had to get creative with their (admittedly deep) pool of talent to keep this streak going.
Players such as Raheem Edwards, Tosaint Ricketts and Jozy Altidore have been receiving the bulk of the credit lately, and it is definitely deserved. But when a team wins five games in the space of 15 days, the coaching staff deserves some plaudits as well. Their management over this stretch has been impressive.
This past weekend’s game against Minnesota United was the climax of the sort of chaos they have had to deal with, a game in which a lot went wrong for Toronto. From the start, the Reds played Armando Cooper at wing-back to give Steven Beitashour a rest and benched Altidore and Victor Vazquez.
Then, as the game wore on, Vanney lost control of the timing of all three of his substitutions. Towards the end of the first half, Sebastian Giovinco had to be removed as a result of tightness in his quad. He will miss the next three weeks.
Instantly, TFC had to change their style, which had previously seen Giovinco dropping into the midfield behind Tosaint Ricketts in order to orchestrate the attack. Half-time also saw Jason Hernandez removed from the match as he felt the effects of food poisoning inflicted the night before.
Vanney only had one sub left for the second half, and didn’t even get to pick when to use it as Nick Hagglund suffered a serious knee injury in the 65th minute. While he was off the pitch, and Toronto were down to 10 men, Minnesota equalized.
Toronto was originally going to replace Hagglund with Justin Morrow, but after Minnesota scored Vanney elected to give Vazquez the minutes instead. It was a smart move, as Vazquez’s play was key to Toronto’s late offensive push. It was also a risky one, as it left Toronto with just two natural defenders, Eriq Zavaleta and Chris Mavinga, on the pitch.
“There is a winning mentality, an aggressive mentality,” said Vanney after the match. “I guess we’re at home and at 2-2, does one point give us a ton of good or does going for three points do us some good? I felt like we could create some problems but also I felt like we could take care of the guys that they had in certain places if we added another midfielder.”
It’s the kind of on-the-fly change of plans Vanney also had to make last Wednesday against Columbus. When it was clear the team’s traditional 3-5-2 formation wasn’t working he made a first-half substitution, bringing off Mavinga for Ricketts.
Again, it was a gamble. Mavinga had been one of Toronto’s better players in the first half and certainly didn’t deserve to be pulled, but it worked; after adding Raheem Edwards to the mix late in the second half, Ricketts scored a pair of goals and Toronto collected the win.
Then, of course, there was the trip to Seattle which Toronto made without a number of key players, forcing Vanney to devise a non-traditional 3-6-1 formation that fit those that were at his disposal. Toronto weren’t spectacular - and neither were they in the wins over Columbus and Minnesota - but it worked.
“This is a group where they’ll compete and it’s not always pretty,” said Vanney after the Columbus win. “Especially when you’re on the road as much as we have been and just the games back to back to back. Guys are lacking a little bit in their legs here and there but we’ve had to get to the depth guys and those guys have shown that they’re capable of being starters.”
Vanney definitely has a lot of pieces to work with - that much has been revealed in the past few weeks. But he also hasn’t had a full set lately, and has still been able to come up with winning moves. His flexibility, willingness to change on the fly if things aren’t working and aggression at home have all been crucial factors during this win streak.
He certainly hasn’t always been the most popular figure among the fans, with the #VanneyOut hashtag appearing regularly last season. But after more than 100 games in charge, anyone still using it is either joking or delusional.
There is no doubt that this stretch represents the best soccer that Toronto FC has played in club history. It is also the best they have been managed.