Greg Vanney: The right man to return the Galaxy to glory

The importance of Greg Vanney's return to Southern California, where he played college soccer, started and closed his professional career, and took his first steps as a Major League Soccer coach, cannot be understated. This is a game-changer for the once-great LA Galaxy.

Vanney's original club has tumbled vast depths since the Bruce Arena era closed four years ago, its role as MLS's standard-bearer evaporating amid an incoherent culture, absent identity and inefficient play as revolving coaching staffs flailed while trying to turn D+ and C+ sides into A+ contenders.

If things were worse just before Arena took charge near the end of 2008, when David Beckham's legacy was most uncertain, the stakes are nearly as high now. It was the Galaxy, with Beckham and all that followed, that prodded MLS on its path to where it today stands, but the club has been mostly left behind in the league's rapid acceleration the past few years -- in talent and style and role within the international game -- no matter Zlatan Ibrahimovic's spectacular deeds.

That other L.A. team, a dozen miles up the 110, is the new breed, sleek and sexy and vibrant, setting standards with a pulsating attack that has scooped up everything, it seems, except the prize most desired. The Galaxy have five MLS Cup championships, five more than Los Angeles FC, but what does the past matter? It's all about now, or maybe next, and the future has seemed to be slithering away.

Vanney's return to his old club changes everything, and that's to do less with the on-field success he's enjoyed over a bit more than a half-dozen seasons at Toronto FC than with how that success was achieved. He's a detailed and innovative manager expert at creating structures, both on the field and in terms of the underlying institutions, enabling the kinds of cultures the most storied clubs possess.

That's what he and his team -- a group that included philosophical partner (and now Colorado Rapids head coach) Robin Fraser, their original Galaxy teammate Dan Calichman (who will remain on Vanney's staff), and GM Tim Bezbatchenko (now with current champ Columbus Crew SC) -- did in Toronto. They took a hapless franchise, one that had never had a sniff of the postseason, and constructed a powerhouse revered for its class, the dynamic academy Vanney righted before promotion to head coach, the depth and quality of its first-team talent, an attractive and effective brand of play, and the spoils that come with such riches.

The Reds played for three MLS titles in four years, winning a Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double -- that 2017 side is firmly in the conversation for the greatest of all MLS teams -- missing out on another MLS crown to Stefan Frei's miracle save, and coming within spot kicks of the league's first Concacaf Champions League crown. They won, not that winning was the point, or at least not the driving concern.

The greater notion: to play the finest soccer imaginable, to transform the American game into something truly breathtaking, to utilize advanced concepts in creating a different path.

Vanney's core aesthetics are mindful of Johan Cruyff's, in that beauty reigns -- he told me for a 2017 preseason piece for FourFourTwo USA 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 experience breeds pragmatism, too. The ultimate expression blends these concepts.

“For us, it's a chess match,” Fraser, then Vanney's chief assistant at Toronto FC, said in that FourFourTwo USA article. “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. It's pretty meticulous in detail, and for a game that's very spontaneous, it's hard to say that. But I think you can be pretty meticulous in the ideas of what you're trying to do, and if you can get the entire group thinking the same thoughts, and your thoughts are good thoughts, then you're pretty far ahead.”

It's strategy guided by modern concepts, something akin to Cruyff's “Total Soccer,” but where the great 1970s Ajax and Netherland teams -- building from innovations dating to the 1930s -- were created around the notion that everybody can interchange with everyone else, Vanney's principles require a unified unit with an advanced understanding of the game and the ability to quickly read play and make adjustments as warranted.

“I'm a believer that the game is based on a set of principles, and I teach the guys to be adaptable and to recognize situations and scenarios and not to rely wholly on the system that we're playing, so if need be, we can adapt,” Vanney said in 2017. “I love it. In my honest opinion, I think we're the most adaptable team in the league, and I think a lot of teams are very reliant on how they play, and I think we can make adjustments and create a lot of uncertainty for opposition because our team is not relying on a system. We have a vision for the game, we have our things that we try to do, but it's based on principles.”

Greg Vanney, who played youth and high school soccer in Arizona, spent a year at Florida International University before starring at UCLA in 1993-95. Vanney's 1996-2001 and 2008 seasons with the LA Galaxy sandwiched his pro career with French club Bastia, FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids and D.C. United.

Vanney, 46, referenced that in Wednesday's introductory Zoom conference with media when asked about his tactical philosophy and the kinds of players needed to implement it.

“The way I see the game is, first and foremost, we want to have the ball ... ideally, we we want to be in possession,” he said. “We want to be aggressive in [attack] -- that's the way we always did it in Toronto, and that's the way I see the game -- [and] we want to be aggressive in how we defend, as well. It's about proactivity and not reactivity, from the way I see it.

“For me, the game is also defined by principles of play. You might hear about some of this stuff as we go. I don't want to get into too many details on all of that [right now]. Systems are a framework, but the principles are actually how players make decisions and how they actually define what we're trying to do. And so getting our players in and starting to teach them what [our] principles are ... and getting them to understand them will be the building blocks for us to build our style of play and to get on the same page together in terms of what we're trying to achieve and what our objectives are within the match.”

Vanney prefers to be flexible with the systems designed to carry out these principals -- he has mostly gone with 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 alignments -- but that's dependent on the players finding comfort “with what it is that we're trying to do,” and that takes time and effort. Things clicked for Toronto FC just past the midpoint of the 2016 campaign, when they were a sub-.500 side looking to build on the club's initial playoff appearance in Vanney's first full season at the helm. The Reds went 39-11-18 in all competitions over the next 18 months.

The starting point to all this was the inaugural MLS campaign in 1996, when Vanney, a rookie left back who had starred at UCLA, befriended Fraser, a cerebral veteran and among the league's finest center backs. They began car-pooling to training in season two, found during lengthy conversations about the game that they were philosophically aligned, and fused the relationship at the heart of Toronto's achievements.

Their tenets expanded over the years and through varied experiences -- Vanney's in the creation of Real Salt Lake's fruitful residential academy in Arizona, Fraser's on a couple MLS first-team staffs, together for two lesson-rich seasons at Chivas USA, and Vanney's time in an MLS-French federation program for academy directors -- and bore fruit with the back-to-back MLS Cup runs in 2016 and 2017.

The most difficult of these projects was among the most fruitful. Chivas USA, which shared the Galaxy's stadium in Carson, was already a year into a four-year, post-Bob Bradley/Preki spiral to oblivion when Fraser got his first MLS head-coaching gig and brought Vanney along. The results did not go well -- the Goats, who went 15-32-21, lacked the personnel to achieve much more -- but Vanney built the club's academy into a power challenging the Galaxy's for the best SoCal talent.

“That was a fantastic learning experience,” he said in 2017. “I learned more about the ins and outs of the league and how the league works, and I started to develop relationships within the league in different areas.” The 2013 course at Clairefontaine taught him “a lot about connecting various dots of things in a way that's more efficient off the field, on the field, to try to get [into practice] what our vision of the game was.”

As a coach, Greg Vanney returned to France, where he played for Bastia in 2002-05, to study its national team's player development program.  

In France he met Bezbatchenko, who brought him to Canada that December, and after burnishing his youth credentials in a dramatic reconstruction of TFC's academy, Vanney took the first-team reins at the end of August 2014. Fraser joined his staff the following season as the roster was overhauled -- Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were the big names to join Michael Bradley. Victor Vazquez arrived in 2017, and alongside a surfeit of vital role players -- and once everybody was up to speed, everything fell into place.

That's the kind of thing the Galaxy wants to see, but it won't come easy nor immediately. There's ample work to be done following a disappointing four-year stretch in which LA employed two head coaches in three different seasons and reached the playoffs just once, in 2019.

Arena's outsized presence defined the culture during the club's golden era, an eight-plus year stretch in which the star-studded Galaxy won three MLS Cup titles and two Supporters' Shields while serving as the face of MLS as it began burrowing a legitimate place within the international game.

Arena, also the GM, stepped down after the 2016 season to lead the national team through the final stretch of the failed bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and he left the cupboard pretty bare. The most important figures had left for other horizons or, mostly, aged out, and his penchant for veterans rather than youth left little materiel for successor Curt Onalfo, promoted from Galaxy II, to fashion a winner. Sigi Schmid was running things by July but couldn't keep LA from the bottom spot in the league table.

A six-game winless run that all but ended LA's doomed playoff hopes finished Schmid's tenure the next September, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto was brought in to make things right in 2019. Ibrahimovic led the Galaxy back to the postseason -- and with a knockout-round win at Minnesota United FC -- but 2020 was a huge step backward, and Dominic Kinnear took his second interim assignment in three seasons.

Schelotto's term was defined by lackluster results, inconsistent form, defensive struggles and, once Ibrahimovic departed for AC Milan, incoherence in attack. That's what Vanney wades into. Upgrades are needed at several positions -- on the backline, perhaps in the nets, on the right flank, maybe the left flank, too, depending on how ongoing negotiations with Boca Juniors to keep Cristian Pavon play out -- and depth across the park. A healthy Jonathan Dos Santos makes things much better; getting Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in tune up front is vital. LA lost the few months it was going to require last year to build chemistry, after Hernandez took over for Ibrahimovic, with the pandemic shutdown, and injuries kept the Mexican striker out when play resumed. Things never fell into place.

Making sense of it all will take much toil, and a culture must take shape. It's a personal mission for Vanney, who has always felt a connection to “a club that I have laid my heart and soul on the field for.” He knows what the club stands for, or what it should stand for.

“It's a club that is used to being on top in the past and has built a legacy that has defined our league in many ways and has set the standard in the league for what quality is like,” Vanney said Wednesday. “[Other MLS teams] have always sought to be more like the Galaxy in some way, shape or form. For me, the build is getting back to there. How can the LA Galaxy be a standard bearer for our league and push the level of all things? ...

“To be a part of the Galaxy, it's a championship mentality ... what it means to show up to work every single day, singularly focused on your job and your mission, to improve yourself and to improve others around you. To do that with humility, to do that with discipline, with open-mindedness, and to do that with determination ... finding solutions and being willing to go the extra mile for, under any circumstances. Having that mentality is what it means to me to be a part of the Galaxy. That's [how things were when I played for LA], and the championships they won there after was off of that mindset. ... There are no excuses. You have to get it done. And that's the mentality we want to bring. ...

“I think this group is looking for that. I think that's what anybody wants -- whether they're at the top of their game or they're just starting out -- they want to feel like they're a part of something that can be great and they want to understand very clearly how they can contribute to that greatness. And every player wants to get better and every player wants to win. And then you have to create the framework of which they understand how they can get better and how they're going to win and how they need each other to do so. [That's] where we're trying to get to.”

All ambitious clubs are, to one extent or another. The difference here is that Vanney and his core group know how to make it work. No question they'll have the resources and support to implement what's needed. This is the first step, in club president Chris Klein's words, in returning the Galaxy to “where we belong.”

“We're confident [we got it right this time],” Klein said. “This feels different. This is a coach that has the Galaxy in his blood. This is a coach that has had success building another team in our league [into champions]. This is a guy who's played in our league and understands what it's like to win in MLS and, certainly, what it's like to win with the Galaxy.

“We're confident this is the right guy to lead us into the future.”

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