TORONTO - Head coach Greg Vanney laid out his blueprint for Toronto FC on Wednesday, saying players will have to meet higher standards next season and embrace the team culture or find the door.
Vanney, who went 2-6-2 after succeeding the fired Ryan Nelsen, made no secret that he was unimpressed by the culture he inherited — from fitness to commitment.
"We need to act and build a culture of success and expectation on a daily basis and live up to those standards every day," Vanney told reporters at the club's end-of-season media availability Wednesday.
Toronto finished seventh in the Eastern Conference with an 11-15-8 record. That set franchise single-season records for wins (11) and points (41) but extended Toronto's run of playoff futility to eight seasons since coming into the league in 2007.
Vanney issued his players a challenge: Get better during the off-season.
"Everyone has room to grow," said Vanney, who played in MLS and in France. "I approached my career as a player that the off-season isn't a time to take a break. The off-season is a time to get ahead of the guy next to you."
"For me, you're either getting better or you're getting worse."
The former Toronto assistant GM and academy boss also put his players on notice: if you don't want to be here, go play elsewhere.
He will be reinforcing that in exit meetings underway with the players.
"All of us need to want to be here — for a long time ... That's my expectation from the guys as I meet with them," he said. "They have to show me and prove to me they want to be here and be part of this organization as we turn the page."
A key conversation will be star striker Jermain Defoe, who seems unsure of his future. While he has said he has enjoyed Toronto, he has consistently said he cannot predict what happens in the future.
That talk may have to be done on the phone. Defoe is back in England, seeing a specialist over a persistent groin injury.
Vanney's message seems to be come on in, the water's fine. And if not, go find another pool to play in.
He is also telling his players that they will have to embrace a new team culture. That culture is still a work in progress, he acknowledged, saying that there was only so much that could be introduced in 10 games.
But it includes higher fitness standards. He attributed the team's lengthy injury list to a lack of "fitness, strength and durability in a league where you must be fit, strong and durable because of the travel, the physicality and guys were breaking down."
Vanney said the team culture will be the same across the board.
"That's going to be on myself, my staff. It's going to be on the medical staff, it's going to be on the kitmen, it's going to be on everybody that's around this building that we will function in a certain way next year and at a higher standard.
"And the players won't have an escape. They won't be able to go somewhere else to find a different, softer culture. This is how we're going to work on a daily basis and this is going to be our expectation.
"We need to find players that are willing to embrace it and drive it and own it," he added. "When we bring in a player from the outside they are going to adapt to what our culture is. They're not going to adapt the culture. I think we've seen that too often."
It was a polished performance from the 40-year-old Vanney, who has won kudos from his players for his clarity and communication.
General manager Tim Bezbatchenko endured a rougher ride before him.
The 33-year-old former league executive found himself on the defensive over a secret sale and subsequent loan back of defender Doneil Henry to an unidentified club in Cyprus, as well as the team's failure to make the playoffs.
He also noted that Vanney had been put in a difficult position, taking over three days before two games just three days apart (Toronto lost the back-to-back games against Philadelphia 1-0 and 2-0). Of course, that was Bezbatchenko's timing given he decided when to pull the trigger on Nelsen.
Saying a team that finished the season on a 2-6-2 clip had "relevancy down the stretch" seemed a reach. Wondering what might have happened if there had been four more games in the regular season also seemed wishful thinking at best.
Instead, Bezbatchenko concentrated on the light at the end of the TFC tunnel despite the playoff miss.
"We didn't achieve our stated goal. But we're doing, I think, a lot of things right and I think the players think that as well."
"I think we've proven this year that we are now relevant again in the MLS discussion," he added. "We're trying to think positively and we have a lot to build on."
Looking back at the season, the Toronto braintrust sees missed scoring chances leading to missed opportunities to put games away and pick up points.
While Vanney says he does not expect major turnover in personnel, his to-do list is long.
He said the club has to improve on everything from how it delivers crosses to how it attacks defenders to create separation. And, in turn, ensure everyone is on the same page.
"The final guy who is going to finish needs to be able to read the intentions of the final passer and vice-versa. And we don't have a good enough connection right now between the two. We don't know where the crosses are going to go. We don't really know where the runners are going to go."
Citing the final game against New England, Vanney said there were instances where the team did not recognize "decisive moments" — when an attack was perhaps one move away from unlocking the defence — and instead chose a different option.
With BMO Field under renovation, Toronto will face a difficult start to the 2015 season with the first seven or so games away from home.
Vanney said he hopes to get in as many as 10 pre-season games with the first week of training camp in Toronto focusing on fitness and "a very very clear classroom-to-field-to-classroom-to-field video" work on how the team is going to play. Camp will continue in Florida.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter