TORONTO — Going into the 2020 season, Toronto FC looked to build on the second-half surge that had carried it to the MLS Cup final last November for the third time in four years.
Consistency and continuity were the keywords for a club that had made minimal changes. Then the pandemic struck, changing everything — again and again.
"We had multiple seasons this year, I guess," said coach Greg Vanney.
Somehow TFC managed to stay on course, thanks in large part to Vanney's steady hand on the tiller. Despite having to leave home and play on the road, Toronto (13-5-5) finished with the second-best record in the 26-team league.
Toronto might have finished first, had it not been for a late spate of injuries.
Toronto's ability to handle pretty much everything thrown its way this season has Vanney up for the Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year Award. Vanney, whose contract extension is expected to be announced any day, won the award in 2017 when Toronto claimed the Canadian Championship, Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.
He is up against tough opposition this year.
Philadelphia's Jim Curtin, a finalist last year when LAFC's Bob Bradley won the award, led the Union (14-4-5) to the Supporters' Shield, the club's first-ever trophy. Oscar Pareja, honoured as top coach in 2016 with FC Dallas, helped Orlando City (11-4-8) to its first ever playoff appearance in his first year at the helm.
But neither faced the challenges that Toronto, and the other two Canadian clubs, did.
Toronto had to play all but four of its 23 regular-season games away from BMO Field due to pandemic-related restrictions. Despite that, TFC averaged 1.91 points per game — second only to its 2.03 points per game in the 2017 championship year and better than 2016 and 2019 (1.56 and 1.47, respectively) when it lost in the MLS Cup final.
A coach's job description is all-encompassing even at a well-stocked club like Toronto FC. This year there was even more coming at Vanney — more than just helping find training sites or places to live.
"There was a lot more management, I would say, of people," he said.
This year that included mental health management.
"Trying to keep guys motivated, keep guys working, trying to feel like what they were doing even at home doing Zoom training session was going to pay off at some point," he said. "There was a lot of management of that side that was very different this year."
He takes pride in how his club and players reacted to the challenges.
"There were a lot of moments when different people, the players, could have thrown up their hands (and said) 'This is just too much or this is just too challenging. Why don't we just put this season to be and move on with it?'
"It never did within our group," he added. "We try to pride ourselves on being problem-solvers … The whole club, from top to bottom, everybody was great in staying in that mindset and trying to just move on from day to day and find the best scenario we could find in whatever the circumstances were."
It helps that TFC is known for looking after its staff and players. While all clubs look to do what they can to ensure their players can focus on their game rather than off-field issues, Toronto often goes the extra mile.
With players coming from all corners of the globe, that can involve everything from finding a place to live to getting a Canadian driving licence.
The club raised that bar during the pandemic, helping fly in relatives to help take care of families while players were away. Meals were delivered. Pets were looked after.
"I don't know every club and how every club operates. But over the years I've really seen this club just take care of people," said Vanney, a father of four. "To understand people, understand the needs of people, be there to help solve problems for families and players so that they can focus on the task at hand and their jobs. And really go above and beyond to take care of the people that are involved in the club.
"Understanding if the people side is taken care of, then that gives the player side of it a chance to be at its best."
Vanney, who likes to be involved with his players, says that also makes his job "so much easier."
After a tempestuous lead-up to the 2019 campaign with Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, Gregory van der Wiel and GM Tim Bezbatchenko all leaving the club, Toronto seemed headed towards calmer waters in 2020.
New deals for captain Michel Bradley, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg and key defender Chris Mavinga augured well. As did the signing of Argentine designated player Pablo Piatti.
News in January that Bradley needed ankle surgery to repair an injury sustained in the MLS Cup final in Seattle was a bump in the road, magnified when star striker Jozy Altidore questioned the club's handling of the injury. Piatti's debut was also delayed by injury.
After extending its pre-season stay in California for the Feb. 29 season opener in San Jose — a 2-2 draw — Toronto downed visiting New York City FC 1-0 on March 7. The team and the world then went into pandemic lockdown and Vanney's club did not play again until July 13 at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida.
After exiting in the round of 16 in a 3-1 loss to NYCFC on July 26, Toronto faced another wait. The club did not see action again Aug. 18, when it began a six-game all-Canadian portion of the schedule.
Toronto played the final 12 games of the regular-season south of the border, with Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford serving as its home away from home.
TFC will host its playoff games there, starting Nov. 24 against one of the play-in game winners.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov 16, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press