Climbing to the top in any profession often means starting at the bottom. That was certainly the case with Greg Vanney's coaching career, which started at the bottom rung of the MLS ladder with two horrible Chivas USA teams.
Seven years later, he's reached the summit, earning the league's Coach of the Year award Monday after leading Toronto FC to a record-breaking season.
"I'm pleased, I'm honored to get the award," said Vanney, who guided TFC to the league's best record, an Eastern Conference title and, with a win Wednesday over Columbus, will take the team to a second straight MLS Cup final.
"What it ultimately means is just recognition of a lot of hard work from a lot of people. I have my role within that. But it's really a team — an entire club — sort of honor to accept an award like this."
Vanney, a defender who played 37 games with the U.S. national team and 11 seasons in MLS, got his coaching start as an assistant to former Galaxy teammate Robin Fraser at Chivas USA in 2011. They lasted two seasons, winning just 15 games combined.
This year in Toronto, where Fraser is an assistant to Vanney, the team went 20-5-9 games and set a league record with 69 points.
The previous mark of 68 points was set by the 1998 Galaxy team for which Fraser, Vanney and Toronto assistant Dan Calichman all played. And Vanney said their time with the Galaxy, which has a reputation for grooming players to become coaches or front-office executives, played a major role in the three men's current success.
"It's been a part of that organization," said Vanney, one of a group of ex-Galaxy players that include coaches Gregg Berhalter (Columbus Crew), Curt Onalfo (D.C. United, Kansas City, Galaxy) Pat Noonan and Matt Reis (U.S. national team) and executives Chris Klein, Peter Vagenas and Jovan Kirovski of the Galaxy and Todd Dunivant of the NASL's San Francisco Deltas.
But the Galaxy pedigree in Toronto extends beyond just Vanney and Fraser. Jim Liston, the team's director of sports science, was the Galaxy's strength and conditioning coach when Vanney played there.
"It's because of the success that the organization has been able to have. When you're good at what you're doing, it really motivates you to want to do better, to know more," Vanney said. "You create relationships that last a long time. And that's what that club's been able to do. That's what pushes people on to be successful in other things."
Tim Leiweke was CEO and president of AEG, the Galaxy's parent organization, when Vanney played there and he studied both him and Fraser as they went through their trials at Chivas. So 16 months after Leiweke accepted the CEO's job with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment — owner of a dreadfully bad Toronto FC franchise — he gave Vanney his first shot as an MLS head coach.
"Greg came from the Galaxy, so obviously, I watched him and saw him as a player," Leiweke said. "[I was] absolutely convinced he was going to be a great coach."
After a difficult finish to the 2014 season, Vanney proved him right by winning 49 games in his three full seasons as coach, taking a team that had never reached the playoffs to three consecutive postseason berths and an MLS Cup final. Wednesday he has a chance at another.
And Vanney believes the blueprint he and Leiweke established in Toronto can match the Galaxy for long-term success on and off the field.
"That's what we hope to have here in Toronto: an organization that once you create a culture, that that culture will exist for our players beyond their playing days and that they will want to then get back into coaching, get back into management, back into other roles that can continue to push the game forward in North America," Vanney said.
"I was definitely a part of that with the Galaxy organization. It was the most memorable experience I had in that way. It was the Galaxy organization that was a big part of why I'm here — and with my assistant coaches, part of the reason that we're all here."