By J Hutcherson (Dec 1, 2020) US Soccer Players – Toronto FC can now add a coaching change to its disrupted 2020 season. The 2019 MLS Cup finalists played out the remainder of the 2020 season in Connecticut due to border restrictions. That ended with a playoff loss to Nashville on November 24. Now, the club is looking for a new coach.
Greg Vanney didn’t leave courtesy of that MLS cliche of a parting of the ways. Instead, from the outside, it looks like he called time on his involvement in the Toronto FC project. His tenure took the team from a troubled club underperforming in a major market to an MLS champion with one of the strongest fan bases in the league.
Spending certainly helped. Toronto turned into the team most likely to push money across the table in a league known for its financial hesitance. Under Vanney, Toronto became a destination for USMNT players returning from Europe as well as names normally associated with super clubs. The squad Toronto put together with Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco was one of the strongest in MLS history.
Toronto chased its 2017 title win by not making the playoffs in 2018. Last season’s loss to Seattle at MLS Cup saw Toronto recover in the playoffs after a 4th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. In this strange season, a late slip had them in 2nd-place behind Philadelphia both in the East and for the Supporters’ Shield.
Besides the obvious, what counts for success in Toronto was already an established question. Their first attempt at building around superstars was when Jermaine Defoe and Bradley joined the club in 2014. That season was in trouble by August, with Toronto making a coaching change at the end of a rough month. Vanney replaced Ryan Nelsen with the team winning two of its remaining ten games and none in October. Defoe’s four-year deal ended up being one. Giovinco and Altidore joined for 2015, and the rebuild was underway.
Vanney’s championship with Toronto served as a blueprint for other teams. Spending became a necessity in MLS. Winning on a budget was now hitting a ceiling. The closest thing to a surprise was Portland making and losing the 2018 MLS Cup. Otherwise, the new era meant Toronto, Seattle, and 2018 champions Atlanta. What all three had in common was that willingness to reimagine their spending within the league’s rules.
An MLS club can only do so much under single-entity. That hasn’t stopped a few clubs from pushing at the limits of what that can mean. With that in mind, a question began to dog Toronto in particular. Given what they’ve spent, should they expect more? Their boom or bust record left them an easy target in that regard. So did a willingness to move on from players that seemed committed to their project. The constant became Vanney as much as who was on the squad. In his first head coaching job, he earned his reputation through partial rebuilds and revivals.
It doesn’t take much insight into how this league operates to go ahead and link Vanney with open coaching jobs. His skill set would appeal to several clubs who would like more return for what they’re spending. Fortunately for Vanney, he’s also in the position to look at what some of those clubs are doing. He’s in a unique position to see how reasonable those demands might be. The job of a coach is by nature similar in any league. Still, another open-ended rebuild may not be all that enticing.
That’s what underlines Toronto’s issues then, now, and moving forward. Sometimes even when they got it wrong, the season ended with them playing for an MLS Cup. The playoff uncertainty in MLS is also nothing new. The fondness for coaches to recast a season as successful by simply making the playoffs has ebbed over the years. Meanwhile, the playoffs turn into something that seems to bask in not reflecting regular season success.
For all the additional accolades heading Bruce Arena’s way for guiding the New England Revolution to the Eastern Conference final, that’s not a plan. A coach like Arena isn’t going to count an 8th-place finish as a positive even with all the excuses this season has on offer. That randomness also hit the top two seeds in the East, making it easy for 2nd-place Toronto to close the door on 2020.
In a press statement earlier this week announcing their end of season moves, general manager Ali Curtis spoke about returning “a core part of the group, including some young, exciting, and hungry homegrown players, but also, we’ll look to make some important decisions that add to the quality of the team. In a lot of ways, the cap next year will be less than it was this year, so we’ll have to be creative. With that said, while we’ll have conversations with Pablo (Piatti) and his representation regarding returning next year, we’ll also look to bring in a new Designated Player.”
What Toronto can’t afford is another coaching cliche. That’s when a coach decides that the squad he takes over isn’t really theirs until however many transfer windows they choose. It’s a silly response to taking a new role, especially for a club with an established organizational model. Toronto had the right coach. They even had the right ambitions when they prioritized winning the Champions League in 2018.
Playing at the limits of MLS then and now creates issues that work against the league’s system. Quality up and down the roster costs more money and allocation spots than the league is willing to allow. More than a few big-money MLS clubs find themselves undone by one or two injuries and the simple bad luck that happens during a season. There’s no coaching that out of a team, no tactical insight that’s going to account for missing major contributors. It’s not flattering their former coach to suggest that Atlanta United is a different team in 2020 with Josef Martinez than they turned out to be without him.
That said, Greg Vanney played a major role in salvaging his swansong in Toronto. This was a club that could’ve easily slipped down the table after the move to Hartford. Their situation was so abnormal, it came with even more built-in excuses. The only Canadian team that didn’t relocate to an MLS venue, everything turned into something new. Add in the injuries and player availability, and keeping Toronto in contention may be the most impressive coaching job this season.
Crashing out of the playoffs at the first opportunity undoes some of that. Simply put, that’s how a playoff league works. It doesn’t recast all of it. That should be the key takeaway from those running the club. Toronto did better than reasonable expectations this season. Rebuilding may not be necessary.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- The situation in the Eastern Conference
- The Red Bulls way forward
- Barcelona opts for change
- 2020 doesn’t need a Super League rumor
Photo by Howard C Smith – ISIPhotos.com