During his time at Toronto FC, Greg Vanney was tasked with getting the most out of superstars like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco. That trio, after all, played a massive part in TFC ending a stretch of eight playoff-less seasons upon joining MLS as an expansion club, then hoisting MLS Cup in 2017 alongside a collection of other trophies.
Now as LA Galaxy head coach, Vanney will likely have to employ a similar approach to get the five-time MLS Cup champions back to their storied levels and expectations. They’ve missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons, leading to Vanney’s new post being viewed as a rebuild in many respects.
To chart that path, Vanney must get more from striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Mexico’s all-time leading scorer managed just two goals in 12 games last season while battling injury and form. Considered a replacement for now-AC Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Chicharito fell short of high expectations in 2020.
It's not surprising then that the wheels are already spinning in Vanney’s head about how to help Chicharito reach the gears that made him a Manchester United star and premier Concacaf goalscorer.
“The way we play and how we set up and how we try to create opportunities, how we defend, has to make sense for a player like that,” Vanney said on The Call Up. “In this league, you have only so many opportunities to have players who have those special qualities to put the ball in the back of the net and the way you play and the way we create opportunities has to fit into what makes sense for him. We can’t just dump balls up to him and expect him to beat three guys and put the ball in the back of the net. That’s not the type of player he is.
Watch: Full interview with Greg Vanney on The Call Up
“Zlatan maybe can score a couple goals like that – he’s a massive mountain and can do a lot of those things, that’s just him. But for us, we need to be a good collective team that breaks down the opposition and allows Javier to create space in the box, to turn things on goal. If we can do that, that’s how I like to play, so I think he suits us as a striker very well and I think he’s going to get some real opportunities to score goals.”
The responsibilities also fall on Chicharito’s shoulders, of course, and the striker told the LA Times he hit “rock bottom” last season. He’s not treating it as an excuse, more acknowledging a low point in his professional career.
During the brief time they’ve worked together, Vanney has seen signs of Chicharito turning the corner.
“I think he’s going to be one of the guys who can really set the standard in our group this year because we need that,” Vanney said. “But then this team, to take a step forward, we need a few guys to really step up and help us to hold the standard across the entire team and he’s proven himself that he’s ready to do that just with the way in which he’s worked this offseason.
“I’m excited to work with him. I think we can create a system and a style of play that really makes sense for him, that can help him to be really successful in terms of in front of the goal, which is where he’s made his bread and butter over the years, putting the ball in the back of the net. We’ve got to be a good team to help him and he’s got to do his thing.”
Should LA get Chicharito producing at peak levels, it could help them get back in touch with their roots. Galaxy and American soccer legend Landon Donovan questioned the club’s soul earlier this offseason, fresh off the heels of a disappointing 2020 campaign that saw previous manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto depart the club.
Vanney understands where those questions come from, and now feels it’s about establishing clarity and identity to meet expectations.
“Ultimately the soul that people see is that of what is put out on the field by the players, and that is what people will judge the club from in many ways,” Vanney said. “What I think the players are dying for is something on the field they believe in and a way of playing and something that they believe they can go out and win games and they know who they are and so they know how to believe in that and fight for that every single day.
“Within that, I think you find the soul again and that then connects with the fans, because then the fans see a team that’s laying it all out on the field for them, and now all of a sudden the energy of maybe what was starts to revive again."
You can check out the entire Vanney interview on The Call Up here.