Planting the seeds for TFC's turnaround. The trip that started the ball rolling
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TORONTO — Greg Vanney inherited a broken team when he took over as Toronto FC head coach on Aug. 31, 2014.
And there was little time to fix it with just 10 games remaining in the season. Especially with star striker Jermain Defoe back in England pondering his future while dealing with a groin injury, captain Steven Caldwell and fellow defender Justin Morrow also injured and veteran forward Dwayne De Rosario away with the Canadian national team.
Toronto lost 1-0 in Philadelphia in Vanney's head coaching debut and finished the season 2-6-2 — out of the playoffs for the eighth straight season — under his tutelage.
The seeds for the franchise's turnaround were planted that off-season. Some eight or nine core members of the team were flown out to Los Angeles for a five-day bonding session that allowed Vanney to share his vision.
"That was one of our first steps to get a group of guys together to start to establish what we wanted to be about," said Vanney.
There was a mountain run. They ran steps at the Rose Bowl. They scaled down a mountain in the evening, working as a team with professionals. And they listened to Vanney.
"That brought us closer and got us all on board to try and make something special here," said midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who took part in the trip.
Vanney and assistant coaches Robin Fraser, Dan Calichman and Jim Liston had done similar during their successful days with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Vanney had joined Toronto in December 2013 as assistant general manager and academy director. He didn't like what he saw.
"You couldn't feel this culture of success," he told The Canadian Press. "You couldn't feel this culture of hard work and guys embracing this idea of their responsibility to get better every day."
First-team players would be on the phone in the gym. Laying down but not lifting weights. There might be two guys working out, rather than the entire team.
"To me there just wasn't the sense of 'I'm here to work, I'm here to be the best version of me I can be to help this team,'" Vanney said. "I don't know how you win if you don't have that.
"For me, as we went into the first off-season, it was about establishing that, finding guys who know what that means."
Vanney made that clear in his meeting with reporters at the end of the 2014 season. It was a message clearly intended for his locker-room.
"We need to act and build a culture of success and expectation on a daily basis and live up to those standards every day," Vanney said at the time.
"Everyone has room to grow," he added. "I approached my career as a player that the off-season isn't a time to take a break. The off-season is a time to get ahead of the guy next to you."
"For me, you're either getting better or you're getting worse."
Vanney went on to promise the team culture would be the same across the board. There would be no exceptions, no place to escape the high expectations.
"We need to find players that are willing to embrace it and drive it and own it," he said. "When we bring in a player from the outside they are going to adapt to what our culture is. They're not going to adapt the culture. I think we've seen that too often."
And in a thinly veiled reference to Defoe, Vanney urged his players to commit to the program.
"All of us need to want to be here — for a long time ... That's my expectation from the guys as I meet with them," he said. "They have to show me and prove to me they want to be here and be part of this organization as we turn the page."
Of the 18 players who dressed for Vanney's first game as Toronto coach, only four are still with the team — Osorio, captain Michael Bradley and defenders Ashtone Morgan and Nick Hagglund.
Toronto finished the 2014 season seventh in the East with an 11-15-8 record, which — in an indication of the franchise's sad-sack history — set franchise single-season records for wins (11) and points (41).
Bradley, the poster boy for Vanney's "every day do something to get better" mantra, replaced Caldwell as captain prior to the 2015 season. Vanney has no issues with Caldwell as skipper but wanted to turn the page. Change was coming.
And so was success.
Since then TFC has gone 49-29-24, made the playoffs three straight years and the MLS Cup final twice. Vanney was named MLS coach of the year last week.
It has not all been wine and roses. While the team set a string of records this season, there were plenty of difficult times off the field.
Vanney's mother passed away. Drew Moor had a heart scare while fellow defender Steven Beitashour needed pancreas surgery after a dangerous on-field collision. Hagglund had two knee injuries.
Newly signed defender Chris Mavinga's start with the club came as his wife was about to give birth in France. And as the season wore on, star strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore dealt with minor injuries and suspensions.
While Vanney looked to use his entire squad, some saw limited playing time. And yet there wasn't any public complaining. The transition from Clint Irwin to Alex Bono as No. 1 goalkeeper took place with nary a headline.
"The first and key part is it's a good group of guys who understand the team is first —and winning is the priority," Vanney said.
It helps that the game plan makes senses.
"They don't always agree with the decisions I make but I try to make them in a logical fashion," Vanney said. "I try to share with them what my logic is as much as possible."
The message has been heard loud and clear as Toronto goes for an unprecedented treble — adding the MLS Cup to the Supporters' Shield (best regular-season record) and Voyageurs Cup (Canadian champion).
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