Toronto's 'process' has it one step away from claiming a historic treble
TORONTO -- Spend enough time talking with Greg Vanney, and inevitably the word "process" creeps into the conversation.
He doesn't say "Trust the process" like former NBA GM Sam Hinkie did to the point of burning it into the North American sporting consciousness. But the Toronto FC manager uses it often enough to explain just about everything that drives his team, which is on the cusp of a domestic treble ahead of Saturday's MLS Cup final (4p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).
Yes, treble. The Canadian Championship barely registers in the U.S. but is important north of the border, as it's the only avenue for Canadian teams to get into the CONCACAF Champions League. As incredible as it sounds, Toronto could have won both the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup and still missed out on the CCL if it didn't win the Canadian Championship.
TFC took care of that trophy back in June, defeating the Montreal Impact over two legs. The Supporters' Shield, emblematic of the best regular-season record, was obtained in October. So with two trophies in the bag, TFC is hoping to cap of a historic year by prevailing over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday.
Competing on all of those fronts requires a special kind of focus. A team's gaze can't drift too far ahead, nor can it be content with results alone. It all comes back to process; the how of the journey rather than the outcome.
"When you start focusing on just results, then you lose the plot," Vanney said. "It's about performance. You can only control the result based on how you perform. You can only perform based on how you train. And you can only train based on how you show up every day with the right attitude and the right mentality and the right work rate. When you back all of that out you come up with some very basic building blocks.
"For me that's the process, and if you do take all of things -- the process, the way you should work every single day -- then can you have some quality. If you can make some good decisions, and you execute, then the results will take care of themselves."
The treble has never been done in MLS, although some teams have come tantalizingly close. An untimely injury to Mauro Diaz thwarted FC Dallas' attempt last year after it claimed both the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield. In 2014, the Sounders achieved the same feat but were bounced out of the MLS Cup playoffs in the Western Conference finals when the LA Galaxy prevailed on away goals.
Even the Shield/MLS Cup double has become an increasingly rare occurrence. It was common enough in the league's infancy, happening four times in the first seven seasons. But in the last 14 years only two teams have managed it: the 2008 Columbus Crew and the 2011 LA Galaxy.
The reasons are varied. The league's expansion to 22 teams has made winning any kind of trophy more difficult. The playoff format, which starting in 2003 saw series played over two legs instead of possibly three, aided the cause of lower seeds considerably. Parity remains an aim of MLS, and the maturation of the league has been a factor as well.
"I think the league and the teams are getting more sophisticated," said Vanney, who played for four MLS teams during his career. "I think it's a more tactical league now than it was back in the day. I think the identity of teams over the last five years or so is really starting to emerge. And the identity of teams from one game to the next could be very different."
Which brings us back to process. To hear GM Tim Bezbatchenko tell it, the focus on process has the added benefit of being a kind of release valve. The more the team focuses on the nuts and bolts, the less the tension mounts.
"I don't think there has been a lot of focus on [the treble], so I don't feel additional pressure for that," he said. "There are so many storylines this year, between the national team interruptions, the [New York] Red Bulls series and what happened, the whole storyline about us being the best team in regular-season history. I think that there are so many other storylines that have been out there before anyone has picked up this idea of the treble. I think it goes back to the intermediate goals that we focused on. As we checked those off, now this week the focus has turned to the last trophy that's available."
Not even the disappointment of last year's MLS Cup defeat to the Sounders was enough to make the Toronto brain trust waver from its belief in the process. Bezbatchenko knew even before that match that the team needed a more creative midfield piece, and after a two-year chase he eventually got his man, Victor Vazquez, in time for the 2017 season.
He and Vanney knew they needed an athletic left-footed center-back, and found that in Chris Mavinga. There were also lessons learned in terms of the effort required to find more success.
"I think that's the experience that we've taken from last year," Bezbatchenko said. "What it's going to take on a daily basis, in the offseason, in preseason, to be successful on all three fronts? As opposed to this motivation of revenge or redemption; I don't think that's what's motivated us.
"That's not the storyline, that's not the talk that's within our clubhouse. 'We didn't do it last year, so we need to go back and reclaim what's ours.' That's not it at all. It's, 'We got that far last year, so how do we get better and improve so that this time around we can be self-motivated and achieve what we think this group can achieve?'"
On Saturday, Toronto will have the chance to see its process result in the ultimate triumph. If that comes to pass, perhaps then TFC can focus on the result for a while.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.