It’s not a good idea to get Sebastian Giovinco mad.
On Nov. 1 MLS announced the three finalists for its Most Valuable Player award. Giovinco, Toronto FC’s star playmaker and the reigning MVP, did not make the final cut, despite a second straight dazzling season.
How did Giovinco respond? Five days later he scored a hat trick and added an assist in Toronto’s 5-0 playoff thrashing of NYC FC.
So when Seattle Sounders FC faces Toronto in the MLS Cup championship game Saturday at BMO Field in Toronto, its No. 1 priority is not only to not upset Giovinco, it’s to make sure the Italian dynamo isn’t able to take over the game.
The primary threat to the Sounders claiming their first MLS Cup since entering the league in 2009 is a player who measures in at just 5-foot-4 and 135 pounds. He may be the smallest player on the pitch Saturday, but Giovinco is the biggest offensive weapon in Toronto’s arsenal. This season he finished tied for third in the league in goals with 17 and second in the league in assists with 15. He’s been equally lethal during the playoffs, notching four goals and four assists in Toronto’s five postseason contests.
“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. “There’s a ton of attributes that he has.”
That list of attributes is unique for an MLS player. That’s because Giovinco is the rare European player who chose to ply his trade in MLS during his prime. Most of the high-profile Europeans who have played in MLS, names like England’s David Beckham and Giovinco’s Italian compatriot Andrea Pirlo, came to the U.S. during the twilight of their careers, when they were no longer able to dominate the European game the way they did when they were at the peak of their abilities.
Not so for Giovinco. The 29-year-old came to MLS at the height of his abilities from Juventus, the best club team in Italy, where he scored 12 goals in 92 games — though he struggled to establish himself as a regular starter. He’s also been a member of Italy’s national team, earning 23 caps from 2011-15 and scoring one goal. There were grumblings when he was left off Italy’s team for last summer’s European Championships, with Italy manager Antonio Conte insinuating that playing in MLS meant Giovinco wasn’t facing strong enough competition to warrant a spot on the team.
Those in MLS, who have had to deal with Giovinco’s elite ball control and playmaking abilities, would disagree. All one has to do is look at the highlights to see what Giovinco is capable of doing.
“He makes it difficult because he’s waist height and you get close, then he pins you and he’s gone, he’s that good on the ball,” Sounders defender/midfielder Brad Evans said. “What do you say about top players? You can’t stop them really, so it’s all about us at that point. We have to keep possession and make sure we finish our chances so we put pressure on them.”
Giovinco generally plays as a forward slightly behind Jozy Altidore, who serves as the target man. But Giovinco usually has a free role that allows him to roam all around the offensive side of the field. Therefore, it won’t just be the job of Sounders central defenders Chad Marshall and Roman Torres to keep Giovinco under wraps. Fullbacks Tyrone Mears and Joevin Jones will have to be alert when Giovinco drifts out wide, while central midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan will have to track back to provide support.
“We’ll try and cut off his service and make it difficult for him to run at us — normal defending things,” Schmetzer said. “It’s going to take a complete team defending-type performance.”
Added Evans: “My thought is you have to play tight with him. But the tough part is that they might look like they play a 4-4-2 in a diamond, but he’ll pop up anywhere on the field and get the ball. You can’t man-mark him.
“It’s all about containment, and guys have to get into him (physically).”
Containing Giovinco is nearly impossible. But it’s something the Sounders will have to do if they want to lif the MLS Cup.
For more on the Seattle sports scene, check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at www.heraldnet.com/tag/seattle-sidelines, or follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.