Toronto FC staging huge soccer turnaround

Bill Manning remembers having to sell defender Drew Moor on Toronto FC while trying to recruit him as a free agent last winter.

Manning, who joined Toronto as president in October 2015, knew where Moor was coming from. He had watched the ups and many downs of Toronto FC from afar during his eight seasons as president of Real Salt Lake.

“I’ll tell you TFC had a bad reputation with players for many, many years,” Manning said. “Guys didn’t want to come here. … I remember when we were recruiting Drew Moor, he had a lot of questions about what this club used to represent and we sold him on a vision of what we wanted to be and where we wanted to go.”

With help from Moor and others, Manning, GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney are delivering on that vision.

On Wednesday, Toronto dispatched the Montreal Impact 5-2 on the night and 7-5 on aggregate to complete a memorable Eastern Conference final. The series, a showcase for exciting soccer, drew 97,004 fans over the two games as well as a bumper TV audience.

One win from the MLS championship, Toronto is now a very desirable soccer landing pad.

“Nights like this is what I was hoping for when I visited here almost a year ago,” said Moor, a 12-year-MLS veteran. “Obviously having been in the league as long as TFC’s been around, I know their history well and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of what we’re doing this season.

“We’ll enjoy this tonight but we’ve got bigger fish to fry as well.”

That would be upstart Seattle, on Dec. 10 at BMO Field. Toronto gets to host the MLS Cup final by virtue of finishing five points ahead of the Western Conference playoff winner.

The Sounders have come a long way from July 26 when they parted ways with longtime coach Sigi Schmid. At the time the team was 6-12-2 in ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference. Seattle has gone 12-3-4 since with Brian Schmetzer at the helm.

Toronto, meanwhile, is 12-3-5 since July 16.

The teams drew 1-1 when they met July 2 at BMO Field in a game that saw Toronto field a lineup that featured perhaps just four starters due to injuries and a crowded schedule. Seattle was without striker Clint Dempsey, who remains out injured, and had not yet signed Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro.

The Sounders are 7-2-2 all time against Toronto FC, including a 3-1-1 record at BMO Field.

The two teams share some common ties.

Goalkeeper Stefan Frei spent his first five seasons in Toronto before joining Seattle in 2014. Defender Eriq Zavaleta was drafted by the Sounders in 2013 and appeared in five games before being traded to Toronto in January 2015. Seattle midfielder Nathan Sturgis (14 games in 2011) and forward Herculez Gomez (seven games in 2015) also spent time in a Toronto uniform.

Unlike the past, the current Reds are happy right were they are.

“Just about across the board, every single guy who’s at this club has chosen to be at this club,” said captain Michael Bradley. “And we’ve chosen to be here for a reason.

“Because we look around and we see unbelievable potential in terms of a city, a market, a fan base, a stadium, a training ground — every box gets checked. You look around the league and there are other clubs that check a lot of boxes. I’m not sure there’s another club that checks every box. This club checks every box.”

But “the stuff on the field — ultimately the most important thing— up until recently hasn’t been right,” Bradley acknowledged.

It is now.

Franchise turnaround

Under former boss Tim Leiweke and current CEO Michael Friisdahl, owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has spared no expense in turning the franchise around. TFC is the best team money can buy in Major League Soccer.

Star striker Sebastian Giovinco’s US$ 7.12-million salary this season is more than the entire Montreal team combined.

Credit Vanney, who took over with 10 games remaining in the 2014 season after Ryan Nelsen was fired, for helping right the ship and keep all the talent happy — although the ultra-focused Bradley clearly plays a huge part in keeping the players on point.

Vanney finished the 2014 season with a 2-6-2 mark but his coaching record in Toronto now stands at 35-33-17. To put that in context, Toronto’s all-time record is 95-146-89.

The 42-year-old American admits he has learned on the job. Today, he is an astute tactician who is good with people.

Vanney showed that on the pitch Wednesday and then after when he made a point of thanking his entire roster, including those who didn’t make the matchday 18.

“I give a lot of credit to the guys who weren’t in the 18 because they played like crazy this week to get these guys ready,” said Vanney as Bradley, sitting next to him, nodded in agreement. “They were excellent all week in training and really gave us things to think about to help us get prepared.”

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