No Jermain Defoe. Two key defenders out with injury. And Dwayne De Rosario and two young squad players away with the Canadian national team.
The Greg Vanney era as manager of Toronto FC is starting with more than a few challenges.
Vanney, the MLS club’s former assistant general manager and still academy director, braved grey skies and rain Tuesday in his second practice since Ryan Nelsen and five assistant coaches were fired Sunday in a bid to stop the slide of a big-ticket team that has gone 3-5-5 in its last 13 games.
At 9-9-6 with 10 games to go, Toronto currently stands fourth in the Eastern Conference with 33 points, in the thick of the playoff picture but also just five points above the ninth-place team. The top five in the conference make the playoffs.
Vanney, a former assistant coach at Chivas USA, jumps into the deep end Wednesday night as Toronto visits seventh-place Philadelphia, which at 7-9-9 is just three points behind. The two teams meet again Saturday in Toronto.
Vanney exuded calm, however, as he met the media after practice. The same feeling was translated to his players.
“In a crazy two or three days, Greg has come in and handled it tremendously,” said star midfielder Michael Bradley. “He has a strong but calm way of leading.”
“When you’re at a club that is going through some crazy times and some crazy days, it’s important that the leaders within that club are strong. And I think Greg has done an incredible job of that.”
Vanney, a 40-year-old American, played professionally for 13 years, winning three MLS Cups, the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy. After the 2001 season, he moved to SC Bastia in France before returning to MLS in 2005 with FC Dallas.
The all-star defender went on to play for the Colorado Rapids, D.C. United and the Galaxy again before retiring at the end of the 2008 season. He won 36 caps for the U.S. national side.
Like Nelsen in weeks gone by, Vanney does not have a full hand to play with as the team takes on Philadelphia.
Defoe is back home in England dealing with a groin injury while pundits debate whether he really wants to continue in Major League Soccer. Captain Steven Caldwell (quad) and fellow defender Justin Morrow are still out while midfielder-defender Warren Creavalle (hamstring) is probably a game away.
Defenders Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan are back from the national team camp, but De Rosario, young goalie Quillan Roberts and midfielder Kyle Bekker are still preparing for an international friendly next Tuesday against Jamaica.
The depleted roster will mean changes, although Vanney was understandably cagey about the kind of formation he will use.
Anything will be better than the lackadaisical display Saturday in a 3-0 loss to the visiting New England Revolution.
“What’s important for me is that we bring a high level of energy to the field and that we bring a confidence level to the field that we’re going to try and get three points, that we’re not going to try to survive,” Vanney said. “I really want us to feel that we can let loose and play with some freedom, but with our tactics in mind the whole game.”
“We have a plan,” he added, “but it’s a short-put-together plan. But I’m confident in the group we have because we have some special players.”
Vanney said his preferred style is to “dictate the game, on both sides of the ball.”
That is at odds to the counter-attacking style employed by Nelsen, although the former manager looked to combine that with possession as the game and opposition dictated.
“I don’t like waiting and letting the other team dictate what we do,” said Vanney. “I want to try to put the game in our vision of the game, not wait and see what the opposition’s vision of the game is. And that requires us to be proactive through the course of the match. I like to be possession-oriented and I like to be attacking-minded.”
He cautioned that such an evolution will take time, but added: “This group is built to be dynamic.”
Bradley will be getting a new role, dispatched further up the field. Under Nelsen, Bradley’s role seemed all-encompassing with the American international often taking the ball from the centre back to trigger an attack with his pinpoint passing.
“I think Michael’s strengths are to play forward and to feel the freedom to move forward and drive the team,” said Vanney. “He’s a great final passer, he’s great at arriving into the (penalty) box late and driving into attacks late. He’s outstanding at closing people down.
“We just have to make sure we’re all doing it together. It doesn’t make sense if one guy’s closing people down and four guys, five guys around him are dropping back. It’s making sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Jason Bent, the lone holdover among Nelsen’s assistant coaches, was joined at practice by academy head goalie coach Jon Conway, under-14 coach Nick Theslof and Jim Liston, the academy’s director of sports science.
While praising each one, Vanney said it was an interim staff while everything is being assessed.
“This has all happened so fast, we’re going to evaluate,” he said. “I want to make sure they’re all comfortable in the roles and the positions that we see for them.”
The change has been so fast that Nelsen’s parking space and sign was still in place Tuesday, a lone empty stall in the lot outside the club’s north Toronto practice facility.
There was one immediate change under the new regime. Reporters were allowed to watch practice from the edge of the field. Under Nelsen, the Hubble telescope was needed to see what was going on with drills held far away.
Asked what his message to fans was, Bradley replied: “Keep the faith.
“I don’t pretend to know everything that’s gone on at this club since Day 1. I know that there’s been promises, heartbreak, disappointment.
“But it’s only going to mean that the people who are with us and the people who are going to be there when we do get this right and when we do have success, it’s only going to make it that much better.”