Boehm: Quietly, Greg Vanney leads TFC ever deeper into uncharted territory

Many coaches are known for their sideline theatrics: Think of Jose Mourinho’s iconic knee slide at Real Madrid, or Jurgen Klinsmann’s animated reactions during US national team games, or Peter Vermes’ irate protestations as he prowls the Sporting Kansas City sidelines.

If anyone was likely to indulge in that sort of thing at Mexico City’s fabled Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night, you’d have expected it to be Club América manager Miguel “Piojo” Herrera, a walking headline whose over-the-top celebrations turned him into an internet meme on several occasions in the past.

That’s not exactly Greg Vanney’s bag. Toronto FC’s head coach is a measured, cerebral sort who tends to keep his emotions in check. But when his side stunned Herrera’s by opening the scoring – via Jonathan Osorio – in the second leg of their Concacaf Champions League semifinal, Vanney couldn’t help but react, spinning towards the TFC bench and pumping his fists towards the wet turf of his technical area.

Snatching a crucial away goal, the shorthanded Reds had stunned the expectant home crowd, surged ahead 4-1 on aggregate and pushed Mexico’s biggest club into an even deeper hole, one that they’d eventually be buried in. If not quite game/set/match, it was close, and Vanney was justified in letting off a bit of steam as Piojo stewed in the rain.

“It was what we were looking for,” he told Toronto media in a conference call on Thursday. “I was elated for the guys, I felt like it was a big icebreaker for us in a big stadium, in a big environment. For the group that was out there to go get that was big for confidence. For [América] to have to score three goals was a big deal. I was pumped up emotionally … it was a little bit of relief, too.”

The Arizona native quickly regained and mostly retained his composure. But the message, and the weight of the moment, had been driven home. A cynic might say that extroverted coaches tend to attract more attention, and thus more career opportunities. Vanney, on the other hand, seems chronically content to let his team’s performances take center stage, and with good reason.

Riding out the 1-1 draw that booked them a spot in the CCL final, TFC vanquished a second Liga MX titan in quick succession after the quarterfinal dispatching of Tigres UANL, and set up yet another Mexico-Canada clash with Chivas Guadalajara. Another series win would make Toronto the first CCL champions in MLS history, and constitute their second landmark, record-setting achievement in under five months after last year’s treble march.

First besting Tigres’ legendary Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, then Piojo, the reigning MLS Coach of the Year has outmaneuvered two of Mexico's most successful managers. Despite a short, tricky preseason, a winless start to their league slate and a vexing rash of injuries along the way, the Reds are on course, calmly steered by Vanney and powered by a tenacious team culture of dedication and resilience.

“We did what we had to do,” he said of Tuesday’s result. “That is what our team does: We go about our business, do what we have to do to get results, regardless of the circumstances. We have a 'no excuses' policy in our building. You have to get it done; you have to do whatever that takes.”

TFC keep winning big games, and climbing toward unprecedented accomplishments. They win pretty, and they win ugly, inspired by stars and role players alike. And with each step upward, the pivotal role of their leader – as unassuming as he may look from the outside – becomes harder and harder to ignore.

“The credit for coaches and clubs lags behind in time,” TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said last fall. “People will come to appreciate Greg and this team and what they have accomplished with time. When they're in it, people aren't really reflecting upon the way that we play, the moves that Greg has made – his ability to manage high-profile players, but also develop depth at the same time, is something not fully appreciated.

“I don't think that's why Greg does it. That's one of the great things about Greg. He's not looking for the credit. That's what makes him the great coach that he is.”

It’s true that Toronto spend sizable sums in pursuit of glory, starting with the wages of Sebastian Giovinco, whose superlative attacking excellence tempts some observers into thinking Vanney’s job is easy. The influence of Michael Bradley, Drew Moor and other locker-room leaders must also be acknowledged. The club’s investments in analytics, support staff, training ground and stadium place TFC, a club known for organizational dysfunction in its early years, at the vanguard of MLS.

But someone has to bring it all together, to make the big decisions and execute the grand plans. Though bigger names elsewhere in the league tend to garner more attention, Vanney has hardly set a foot wrong since TFC charted a course for greatness in the wake of their painful loss in the 2016 MLS Cup. Toronto’s culture of success may have raised the bar high enough that he could be seen as merely fulfilling his duties – but that itself points to the magnitude of the work he has done.

“At this point, where we are as an organization, these are expectations,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono at Azteca. “It's our expectation to come down here and be able to get a result. It's our expectation to be able to play in the finals of an international competition. So for us it really speaks to the ambition of the club, the ambition of the fans, the ambition of the players.”

Vanney and Bradley share a word during MLS Cup celebrations | USA Today Sports Images

The next few weeks present further hurdles. The first leg of the CCL final looms on Tuesday, the latest in the string of massive games at BMO Field. In the meantime TFC had to fly directly from Mexico City to Denver for Saturday’s league match vs. Colorado, where Vanney played a reserve-heavy lineup in a 2-0 loss.

It’s the first of six league games over the next month for the Reds, half of them on the road. CCL hangovers have previously plagued MLS teams in TFC’s situation, hinting at further tests of their resolve to be great. Though they’ve only played three MLS matches so far, they’re already 13 points back of early Supporters' Shield leaders NYCFC, with three games in hand.

Trophy-hunting on multiple fronts is notoriously difficult. If Vanney & Co. are to defend last year’s hardware, they’ll have to pivot swiftly whether they beat Chivas or not. There are only so many points they can afford to drop. In the words of Jonas Salk, the reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.

“Our group is very focused,” said Vanney on Thursday. “They’ve been through a lot together as a group… This is a target they put out for themselves a long time ago.

“It’s a group that’s been very motivated about this whole idea of just being different from anyone who’s come before them. And this is one more thing that has not been accomplished by anyone in MLS, and to be the first is our objective. … Now we have one more mission.”

Additional reporting contributed by James Grossi

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