By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – MLS history is a bit deceiving. As a league with a quarter-century of existence, MLS has packed a lot into a relatively short period. With parity a central feature, the fortunes of clubs have risen and fallen in dramatic ways at shorter intervals than happens in the rest of the world. Those big swings can be disorienting when it comes to trying to properly assess a club’s big choices. Choices like a head coach, to name one obvious example.
It’s easy to forget that Toronto FC didn’t matter much in MLS as recently as 2014. For the first eight years of its existence, Toronto was an also-ran that occasionally made headlines mainly through questionable choices. Good years were ones when TFC managed not to finish last.
With no success to point to and a fan base desperate for progress, the club constantly turned over its leadership on and off the field. Toronto turned its fortunes around for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were the signings of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco. Players win games. TFC’s decision to spend significant money to win made a massive difference in their results.
Greg Vanney deserves a fair share of the credit as well. His arrival in Toronto ended the constant churn of coaches. Vanney provided the steady, intelligent leadership the club needed. He didn’t demand the spotlight and he didn’t work to consolidate power.Benefiting from the ample resources and work of general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, Vanney built the club into a winner.
Toronto’s ascension to the top echelon on MLS, starting with an MLS Cup final berth in 2016 and the league double-haul of trophies in 2017, didn’t settle their long term future. Every transition at the club is risky. Get it wrong and the bad old days could be back in a big way.
That’s why Toronto’s decision to hire former New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas to replace Vanney is so fascinating. Toronto’s lone period of success in a relatively short history came under someone who had no head coaching record before he got the job ahead of the 2014 season. Armas arrives with two-and-half seasons coaching a team, a wealth of experience by comparison. That doesn’t come with a list of trophies.
Do his similarities to Vanney mean that Armas is a good “fit” for the culture of the Reds? The Chicago Fire legend has a lot in common with Vanney on the face of it. Playing philosophy aside, Armas is a veteran of the league both as a player and as a coach, working with Toronto GM Ali Curtis when both were with the Red Bulls in the Jesse Marsch era. Armas is passionate and open, an approach appreciated by those who worked with and covered Vanney in Toronto.
The wrinkle for Toronto is their status as one of the biggest teams in the league. The irony of Vanney’s success with TFC is that he elevated the club to a point where replacing him with a head coach who has a profile similar to his when he took charge in 2014 doesn’t feel ambitious enough. Winning drives fan interest and keeps the revenue streams flowing. It also creates expectations that can shift what fans find acceptable.
For the moment, it’s tough to know how any fan base is responding to change. The internet is a notoriously poor conduit for capturing fan satisfaction since it tends to amplify the angriest in the group. Toronto hasn’t played at home in months, and when they did in phase one of the restart is was in an empty stadium.
Despite the geographical hardship that had them playing home games in Connecticut, Toronto contended for the Supporters’ Shield down to the end of the regular season. Exiting the playoffs at the first opportunity to Nashville was embarrassing, but it didn’t cancel out the good achieved in 2020. That said, it does open up the leadership at TFC to a few questions about the next stage of the club’s history.
By choosing an MLS lifer with limited experience and a recent dismissal on his record instead of a marquee name, Toronto is cutting down its margin for error. One way or the other, the club’s support will eventually make their feelings known. The danger in getting this choice wrong is that it could start a domino effect and leave the club scrambling to regain its footing.
Clubs like Atlanta United and the LA Galaxy stand out as examples of teams that failed to get it right. The Galaxy has hired Vanney in a bid to get back to the level established by Bruce Arena, who won three championships there. Atlanta United is trying to get back to their original era under Tata Martinez, one that ended just a couple of seasons ago. That’s now Gabriel Heinze’s job. Luckily for Atlanta, the flip side of MLS parity tearing down good teams with regularity is it also allows for a rapid climb back to the top. Any club in Toronto’s position knows what to avoid.
Perhaps that working knowledge will help Toronto keep up with the elite in MLS. The turnover at head coach is only one of several questions facing the club, with its core group of players aging and an open Designated Player spot. It might even be fair to say that TFC’s signing for that DP spot is more crucial of a choice than the head coach.
Part of Toronto’s rise was its ability to turn its spending power into some of the League’s best players. Vanney’s quiet leadership helped it to thrive, but he never stood out as the driving force of Toronto’s success. He mattered, but it wasn’t on the sidelines that Toronto shined brightest.
Toronto is a top MLS club for the moment. It wasn’t always that way. If they’re going to stay there, Armas has to pick up where Vanney left off.
More From Jason Davis:
- The importance of the link to MLS
- Inter Miami opts for an interesting offseason
- The uniqueness of the FC Dallas and Bayern Munich relationship
- MLS chooses to remain stuck in 2020
Photo by Andy Mead – ISIPhotos.com