Vanney & Fraser: Two longtime friends on a quest for coaching greatness
The seeds to Toronto FC's rise from pauper to prince were planted long before the club was even a twinkle in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment's eye, some two decades ago, when Greg Vanney and Robin Fraser hooked up on the Los Angeles Galaxy's backline in Major League Soccer's inaugural season and discovered they shared a philosophy about the game.
It was all rudimentary at first, and that only after they'd gotten to know and respect and genuinely like each other, but they've had a partnership since, even when their paths have diverged, and it's led to this.
The Reds, with Vanney as head coach and Fraser his right-hand man, were one miraculous Stefan Frei save from beating the Seattle Sounders three months ago in the MLS Cup final. That stung, sure, but not so deeply as it might have. They know they'll be in the hunt again this year -- as maybe the team to beat in 2017 -- and, besides, their vision extends far beyond trophies.
The real aim is to transform soccer in the U.S. and Canada, employing advanced concepts in service of a truly beautiful game beyond anything we've seen on these shores, except on television. Winning is wonderful, but the goal, Vanney says, is “about being the best team” ever to step onto an MLS field, and he doesn’t necessarily determine “best” by results.
"When I talk about our group, it's never about winning championships. It's about being the best team that's ever been in this league and pushing the level of the league forward and trying to measure ourselves with teams outside of this league."
Vanney's a soccer aesthete, perhaps in the Cruyff mode -- he acknowledges that “in the past I would say I was more caught up in how the game looked, and then the practicality of the game and getting some results” -- but the philosophy he and Fraser have developed over the years, through many and diverse experiences, has a built-in pragmatism.
“For us, it's a chess match,” Fraser said. “And it's very much about the thinking that happens on the field that allows you to manipulate the opposing group and exploit some of the things we're able to open up.”
That's the starting point for the Reds, and they believe trophies will follow. That, at least, is how it's supposed to work, and they head into 2017 a little closer to an ideal that's grown from “basically, a dialogue 21 years running,” as Fraser puts it.
Here's the path they followed.
The 'young guy'
Vanney, a rookie left back from UCLA, and Fraser, an eighth-year center back with a dozen U.S. caps, met when the Galaxy began preparations for that first MLS season, and their friendship blossomed quickly.
“You could tell he was always trying to figure things out, figure out his surroundings,” Fraser said. “He was a really good pro from minute one, and he started to play more and more, and by the middle of the year -- maybe even before then -- we were all going, 'This guy is going to have a really, really long future.' I think if guys show they respect the game, then there's a mutual bond right away, and I think because of that, we got pretty close pretty quickly.”
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Vanney started 24 games that first year, then netted a pair of playoff goals as the Galaxy romped into the first MLS Cup final, where LA let a two-goal, second-half lead slip away in an extra-time loss to D.C. United. His relationship with Fraser deepened in the second season, after both married and moved to the San Gabriel Valley east of the Rose Bowl. They carpooled to training over the next few years and spent hours discussing the game.
“I think that we had a very similar outlook relatively soon in our relationship,” Fraser said, “and, really as the years went on, we just talked about how we saw things and how we would like to one day have a chance to coach together and see what happens. We talked about coaching together for a long time.”
Their first opportunity came with a girls team from nearby Santa Anita Soccer Club, and it spurred, Fraser said, “an extremely, we would like to think, insightful conversation” on developing players and teams. Their philosophies at that point were, Vanney noted, “scratching the surface in a lot of ways.”
The Galaxy found success again in 1998, winning 24 games but falling in the Western Conference final, and in 1999, when LA returned to the MLS Cup title game and lost again to D.C. after Fraser departed with a broken collarbone from a Roy Lassiter shove in the opening minutes.
Fraser departed the Galaxy in a salary cap-forced move after the 2000 campaign, spending the next three years with the Colorado Rapids before wrapping his playing career with two seasons in Columbus. Vanney left the following year for three seasons in France with Corsican side Bastia and returned to MLS in 2005 for his final three years, with Dallas, D.C. United and the Galaxy.
The next steps
After retirement, Fraser eventually joined Jason Kreis’ staff at Real Salt Lake in 2007. Through happenstance, Vanney started Real Salt Lake's Arizona academy in Casa Grande, about 50 miles south of Phoenix, after convincing Kreis and then general manager Garth Lagerwey that it made sense. Fraser and Vanney were back on the same team.
“We would talk all the time,” Fraser said. “We would talk about what we were doing with the first team. We always talked a lot about specifics, the details of movement and moving defenders and that sort of thing. We would discuss what was happening there [in Casa Grande], and he would tell me a lot of what he was planning to implement and how he thought it was going to play out.”
Vanney's academy was a huge hit, and the first team took off under Kreis, unexpectedly winning the 2009 MLS Cup title, then losing just four games and conceding 20 goals in 30 outings the next year before falling in the first round of the playoffs. Fraser was interviewing for head-coaching positions, and the plan, by then, was if Fraser or Vanney became head coach somewhere, the other would join him.
The call arrived in January 2011, from Chivas USA, which was a year into its downward spiral after four fine seasons under Bob Bradley and then Preki. Vanney joined him, as assistant coach and academy overseer.
“This was the culmination, we thought, of many dreams and discussions that had started years prior to that ...,” Fraser said. “I think, naïvely, I looked at the challenge at Chivas and thought we can overcome them.”
Vanney rebuilt Chivas' youth setup into one of the best in the Developmental Academy, but things were tougher with the first team. Chivas USA was notoriously cheap, and the club's diminishing fortunes would grow more pronounced after majority owner Jorge Vergara bought out co-owners Antonio and Lorenzo Cué in August 2012, and Fraser and Vanney -- and the coaches who followed them -- never had the means to build a winner.
Fraser and Vanney made wholesale changes, both years, and it didn't go well. Chivas went 8-14-12 the first year, finishing eighth of nine teams in the West, and it was worse in year two: 7-18-9 for last place, ahead of only Toronto in the overall table, with just 24 goals. They were shut out 17 times.
“While it didn't go how we wanted it to, I think you make gains regardless of how the results are,” Fraser said. “You make gains in your own personal philosophy and outlooks, and there are so many different aspects of professional coaching that we were at least able to test our ideas.
“The one thing that I think we found -- certainly I found, in moving from RSL to [Chivas] to New York to Toronto -- was that there is no set way to do things. You have your ideas on how you want to do it, and you have to be a little bit flexible and adaptable based on the pieces you have, and as you go about trying to change the pieces that you have, you have to be able to survive as well. Chivas was tough. It was a hard learning experience for us, but I think we both came out of it even more equipped for the next thing.”