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Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney, right, kicks a ball during Wednesday’s practice session ahead of this weekend’s MLS championship final match against the Seattle Sounders in Toronto.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In 1996 while Greg Vanney was a student-athlete at UCLA, he took a class that required him to start a business.

He chose to form a soccer team – the Arizona Futbol Club.

When Vanney went home to Arizona that year, he trained with the Marcos de Niza High School team, his alma mater in Tempe, and got to know its coach, Michael Rabasca.

"We kind of hit it off and in 1997 we started the club that I wrote the business plan about and he ran the club for several years," Vanney said.

Some two decades later, the 42-year-old Vanney is head coach and technical director at Toronto FC and Rabasca is his director of cognitive development.

It's typical of the ties that bind Vanney's coaching staff at Toronto, which hosts the Seattle Sounders in Saturday's MLS Cup final.

Like Vanney, assistant coaches Dan Calichman and Robin Fraser were captains at the Los Angeles Galaxy with Fraser following Calichman as skipper and Vanney wearing the armband after Fraser, when Cobi Jones was absent. Fraser and Vanney played in the same Galaxy backline at the 1996 and 1999 MLS Cups.

Jim Liston, Toronto's director of sport science, was the strength and conditioning coach at the Galaxy during the 1999, 2001 and 2002 Cup final runs.

Liston and Vanney were later reunited at the Competitive Athlete Training Zone (CATZ), a high-performance training facility co-founded by Liston. Rabasca and Vanney crossed paths again at the Real Salt Lake academy.

Fraser would serve as director of coaching for Vanney's Arizona Futbol Club, which was later merged into the Sereno Soccer Club.

Vanney played at UCLA with Nick Theslof, another TFC assistant coach. Theslof went on to work with Juergen Klinsmann at the German national team and Bayern Munich. He was also an assistant coach and technical director at Chivas USA while Fraser was head coach and Vanney was an assistant coach and technical director of the youth academy.

Fraser says while the coaches share a soccer mentality, there is plenty of room for debate.

"No conversation's a short conversation, put it that way," he said. "But I think in the end it's good, it's really good. We challenge each other, think about certain things and I think as a group, we make each other better." Vanney agrees, saying the group complements each other in expertise and character.

Liston, aside from his sports performance side, is a vibrant, positive leader, according to Vanney.

"Which isn't really me. I'm not really an over-the-top vibrant guy," Vanney said.

Fraser, a two-time MLS defender of the year and five-time all-star, is on the quiet side like Vanney. Like Liston, Calichman is more vocal.

In addition to his soccer background, Rabasca is a former occupational therapist who worked with patients who had severe brain injuries. His job was to "create new pathways in the brain to be able to re-learn to do things."

Over the years, Rabasca started connecting the dots in combining the two interests. Vanney, who calls Rabasca a mentor, describes him as incredibly well-organized.

He keeps Vanney on track "when I've got things all over the place."

A technical expert, Theslof often works individually with players.

Goalie coach Jon Conway was already at the club when Vanney joined in December, 2013, as assistant general manager and academy director. Vanney, who took over as head coach in August, 2014, knew Conway from their time as players and the two worked together at the TFC academy.

While Vanney, Fraser and Calichman were all defenders, Vanney says they come at it from different angles.

Vanney, who won 36 caps for the United States, was an attacking fullback before moving to centre back so he thinks offence. Calichman works with the centre backs.

Vanney says he and right-hand-man Fraser, who won 27 caps for the United States, also concentrate on larger team matters.

So what's it like having three defenders as coaches?

"It means that they never leave me alone," veteran centre back Drew Moor said with a laugh.

"I think almost every single day one of them will start talking to me. I get about halfway across the field and the other one will start talking to me. And just when I'm almost off the field, the third one will come and start talking to me.

"But it's huge, I think," he said more seriously. "They certainly made defence their focus this season. They are all very good defensive minds. I feel like my thought process is very similar to what their's is and that's just to be difficult to play against and organize the players around you."

With the off-season addition of Moor, fullback Steven Beitashour and goal keeper Clint Irwin, Toronto lowered its goals-against this season to 39, tied for second best in the league. The team gave up 58 last year, tied for worst.

"I think in terms of where we've come defensively this year, it's been a lot to do with the way they coach and the way they think about things and the way they see things from the sidelines," said Moor, who played next to Vanney at FC Dallas for most of the 2006 season.

The Toronto coaching crew is clearly a close group that has each other's back. Vanney chose carefully.

In looking back at his career, Vanney says he cherishes the friends he made along the way.

"That's why I work with Robin and Dan and Mike and Nick and all the guys. That, to me, is what it was about. Obviously, through all of that, you win. And when you win your bonds become tighter, but it really was about the people. That was the takeaway from the experience for me – and the knowledge and the passion for the game."

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