Although Toronto FC players have harped about collective squad unity during MLS Cup media day, it’s difficult to overlook Sebastian Giovinco’s aura during the Reds’ playoff run.
TFC’s privileged to host the biggest game in the club and country’s soccer history, and it’s ironic that the smallest player on the pitch’s significance can inevitably determine the final result. With the opportunity to give the city of Toronto it’s first championship in nearly 25 years, and who better to do it then arguably the best player to ever play in the league’s history.
Although Giovinco didn’t win the MLS MVP award this season, the public outcry when the announcement was made suggests that perhaps the Italian should have retained that honor. But what awaits Giovinco on a frigid Saturday night could be the biggest moment of his career.
The Italian was never a core component during his tenure at Juventus, and he’s failed to make a regular contribution to the Italian national team. But the 29-year-old can call BMO Field home. A club that appreciated Giovinco for his many strengths, and provided the Italian a platform to dominate a league that craved a genuine star
That’s what simply increases the significance of the final: a possible sellout home crowd consisting of 36,000 fans anticipating one more moment of Giovinco individual brilliance that would shift the state of Canadian soccer forever. In ways, the similarities between the Italian and the Canadian soccer landscape is conspicuous. Never really provided a chance to flourish, but once under the spotlight, could evolve into something great.
Giovinco’s arrival to TFC came at a dark time at the club. The ambition to become an MLS superpower hit a roadblock following the Jermain Defoe experiment, and though stylistically the duo’s compatibility was low – given the talent around the Englishman – the belief that TFC could outdo their error offered skepticism.
But with Michael Bradley already at the club, and the arrival of Jozy Altidore, TFC’s designated players were approaching the peak years of their career, thus ensuring longevity. Two seasons together with consecutive playoff appearances – a milestone for a club that once appreciated simply fighting for post-season contention – deems the early stages of the project a near success. Put simply, Saturday night’s clash with the Seattle Sounders represents the final test.
Where the designated players deserve credit for their influence throughout, manager Greg Vanney is also responsible for building a stable side filled with tons of depth – which could be a decisive factor Saturday night. TFC have made many smart moves following the Defoe failure, but Giovinco’s impact across the league sets the bar.
The mazy dribbling, unthinkable ability to evade several challenges in tight spaces, while proving to be a devastating finisher separates Giovinco from the rest. Operating in a two-man attack, Giovinco serves as a hybrid playing off Altidore, who equally creates space for the Italian with his physical presence upfront.
The 29-year-old phenomenon isn’t a traditional centre-forward, nor is he a creative no.10 that solely creates around the final third. In truth, Giovinco’s strongest trait since moving to TFC involves swift counter-attacks that witnesses the Italian drift into space in the left channel to receive passes and instantly break towards the box.
Then there’s set-piece proficiency: Giovinco’s threat around the box is unprecedented, and it was vividly displayed most recently against the Montreal Impact. A threat in both phases of attacking play, the Italian’s 39 goals and 31 assists in two MLS regular seasons – 61 games to be exact – further reiterates why Saturday night could be the defining moment to a truly remarkable career.
But for all of Giovinco’s brilliance, the Italian’s post-season production is concerning. Practically anonymous in last year’s exit to the Impact in a single-game knockout, Giovinco’s brilliance has been overshadowed by Altidore’s great run of form and standout collective performances. His hat-trick against a poorly organized New York City FC side was just a glimpse of Giovinco’s threat during his MLS tenure, but the Italian’s lacked consistency during the post-season.
“He’s quick, fast, skillful, scores goals, set pieces, leads by example, can run all day,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said in listing off Giovinco’s qualities.
“We’ll try and cut off his service and make it difficult for him to run at us — normal defending things,” said Schmetzer. “It’s going to take a complete team defending-type performance.”
Perhaps Montreal’s swarming-defensive approach was highly effective and could be replicated by Seattle this weekend, but for a player of Giovinco’s quality, you simply expect more in the biggest games. The Impact clogged space in central areas by sitting deep and narrow, and therefore every time Giovinco received the ball there were two Montreal players within close proximity.
Nevertheless, in a one-game knockout final, preparations are slightly tweaked as the away goal rule doesn’t apply. This presents Giovinco with another opportunity to dominate a significant playoff game at BMO Field, and there would be no better time than an MLS Cup Final to solidify the Italian’s greatness.
The city of Toronto is undergoing a major transition when it comes to successful sports teams, but the Reds are always overlooked in comparison to the Raptors or Blue Jays. Oddly enough, so is Giovinco, who could arguably be the greatest sports figure to ply his trade in the city.
Mats Sundin, Roy Halliday, Jose Bautista and Vince Carter are the most recent iconic figures to represent Toronto teams, but unlike Giovinco, they weren’t capable of guiding their respected club to a cup final. Giovinco, on the other hand, receives the ideal chance to be recognized in the same breath as Joe Carter to bring the city back to prominence in the sporting world.
Earlier this season, Giovinco mentioned the pleasure of being able to walk the streets of Toronto and live a normal life. Not many Torontonians are familiar with the diminutive superstar, though his arrival to the league has gradually improved the clubs following throughout the province.
Any significant influence in a positive result over the Sounders would elevate the Italian amongst one of the greatest sports figures this city has ever seen. The unpredictable dribbles, swift body feints, proficient set-piece efficiency, and sheer determination to find the back of the net won’t go under the radar against a Sounders defence that will be tasked with halting history.
It’s been nearly a decade of heartache for TFC fans dreaming of one day fighting for MLS top honours, and their designed scheme to build a dynasty is 90 minutes – potentially an additional 30 if extra-time is required – from being successful under Giovinco’s guidance.
Toronto awaits a new sporting hero, and one more breathtaking moment of brilliance separates Giovinco from joining the city’s higher echelon. It simply doesn’t get bigger than this.