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Greg Vanney survived a Kreisis to become Toronto FC’s best coach

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The American has signed a new contract with the Reds after proving beyond doubt that he is the man to lead the club forwards.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Manning was named Toronto FC’s new president a couple of weeks before their first-ever MLS playoff game against the Montreal Impact. It was the morning after that humiliation at Stade Saputo, though, that he said marked the beginning of his first day on the job.

And Manning had a big decision to make.

Almost exactly around the time of that playoff tie, it became clear that Jason Kreis, Manning’s MLS Cup-winning coach at Real Salt Lake, would not be back for a second season at New York City FC. It seemed as if the stars were aligning for Manning to make a first big splash in Toronto.

Few Reds fans would have complained, after all, about the decision to replace the inexperienced Greg Vanney after the Montreal nightmare. Especially not if his replacement was to be Kreis, a man who had kept a small-market Real Salt Lake team in contention for several seasons and come the closest any MLS coach has come to this day to winning the modern CONCACAF Champions League.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Manning thought long and hard.

“I was embarrassed,” Manning said of the playoff exit. “I’ve been here two weeks, so I don’t have the connection yet with the players and with the coaching staff.”

“I’ve been getting a ton of calls about Jason Kreis being let go in the last day,” he continued, speaking at his end-of-season exit interview. “I've thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot.”

But he didn’t pull the trigger.

While Manning liked something about Vanney, though, that’s not to say that he was going to be handed a blank contract. He set clear, public targets for his coach to be measured against, such as conceding fewer than 45 goals during the 2016 campaign.

MLS: Toronto FC at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

“As we got midway through the 2016 season, I really started believing in him as a head coach,” Manning said this week after Vanney signed a contract extension. “I told him that - it was probably July or so that year. I said, ‘you’re the guy that’s going to lead us in the future’.”

Vanney, as Manning put it, is no longer looking over his shoulder. He is still searching for the MLS Cup that would vindicate him as a coach - as long ago as the Kreis debate now seems, not two years have passed since then - but cannot help but gaze beyond it, to something bigger. In that sense, he is the perfect fit for his club.

“I think we share a similar vision of how the game should be played,” general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said of his and Vanney’s successful partnership.

What seemed like question marks around Vanney back in 2015 are now seen as strengths. Manning said back then that the lack of outward fire in his personality was “maybe something he can develop”. Bezbatchenko, always viewed as a front-office star in the making and tipped to be a future MLS commissioner by his boss this week, was “a little more fiery than Greg is,” Manning had added, smiling with an obvious fondness. “He gets pretty intense.”

Nowadays, Vanney’s calm, analytical manner is seen as one of his key traits. It was his ability to judge games with a clear eye from the sidelines that allowed him to make such a consistent impact with tactical changes and substitutions during the 2016 playoffs. “I try as much as I can - and it’s not always the case - to stay a little less emotional in the game,” Vanney explained.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Spend a few minutes in Vanney’s presence talking about how Toronto’s last game unfolded - or even in the post-match press conference, when he has had all of 10 minutes or so to digest what has happened - and his ability to articulate complex tactical concepts is striking. It is also evident in his work, whether it be the shrewd game plan that set Toronto on their way to beating the the Seattle Sounders earlier this season or the first-half substitution that turned their Canadian Championship semi-final against the Ottawa Fury on its head.

It is strange to say in a way, but one of the clearest indicators of Toronto’s lack of success over their first eight years or so of existence was the small number of players and staff who they saw leave for a bigger stage.

Perhaps more than anyone else in the club’s history, Vanney is changing that, whether it be through his development of the players in his first-team squad or his long-held belief in the importance of a productive academy.

Before long, Toronto might have a job on their hands convincing him not to join that class of alumni himself.