On English and indeed European soil, when one is asked about Major League Soccer (MLS), names that will immediately come to mind are naturally the likes of Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who have graced the top level for many years and are a symbol of success and style.
There is an Italian on that list too, Andrea Pirlo. However, across the Atlantic it is not Pirlo, but another Italian whose name is on everyone’s lips.
It’s true that Pirlo’s arrival in New York has stirred the interest of many as he now slots in to the same New York City team alongside another European favourite, David Villa, as well as the aforementioned Lampard.
While it was David Beckham who was attracting a female audience when he came on to the English football scene in the mid-90s, it is Pirlo’s elegance, his beauty on and off the pitch which has made the term “man crush” acceptable in social media circles.
He is yet another reason why fans around the world will tune in to MLS when New York City are in action.
While some of these big-name players are making headlines for simply posing in front of the camera in their club’s colours, and then donning those colours for 30, 50 or 60 minutes a game, others are making headlines for the right reasons: no more than Pirlo’s fellow countryman, Sebastian Giovinco.
The Italian plies his trade with Toronto FC and has fired his team up the Eastern Conference standings. His second hat-trick of the season last week against Orlando City brought him to a total of 16 goals, making him the top goalscorer in the division whilst also breaking his club’s record for most goals in a season.
What’s amazing, or not, is that Giovinco is only 28-years-old and has bucked the trend of over-30, ready-made legends that arrive from Europe.
Giovinco came through the ranks at Juventus, making his senior debut for the Bianconeri in 2007, when the club were playing their first season in Serie B after their demotion following the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.
He would go on to feature for Juventus in Serie A for five seasons thereafter; his total time spent in Italy including loan spells at Empoli and Parma. He has appeared 21 times for the Italian national side, scoring once.
At just over 5’4 in size he is not the most physical of players, but his pace and skill have been a handful for MLS defences this season.
To get a player of Giovinco’s calibre at this point in his career is a huge coup for MLS, considering he would have had another four or five years playing at the highest level in Europe before heading stateside for the so-called twilight of his career.
Robbie Keane, who packed his suitcase at 31, has been the one to steal the show in recent seasons but he looks like being upstaged this year by this diminutive attacker, seven years his junior.
One of his main rivals from the over-30s’ pool is New York City’s David Villa. The former Barcelona striker is on 13 goals for the season, and both he and Giovinco scored in a crazy 4-4 draw last month between their respective sides which saw the latter claim his first MLS hat-trick, with Villa bagging a brace.
Villa then scored another double in a 5-3 victory over Orlando City at the tail end of last month. He was outdone on the goalscoring charts on this occasion by Cyle Larin, a 20-year old, powerful striker who netted his first MLS hat-trick during this game.
While it seems goals are aplenty week in, week out: 4-4 and 5-3 just some of the high-scoring results to play out, it is perhaps at the other end of the positional spectrum where an overall improvement is needed.
It is unlikely that Thierry Henry will be appearing in any adverts in the near future to proclaim MLS as “the best league in the world”, although there are similarities between the shoddy editing of Henry’s latest cameo and that of some of the defending on show in the Western and Eastern Conferences at times.
While MLS still has to make major strides in overall quality, there is without doubt an entertainment value and the likes of Giovinco, Larin, and indeed New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips are proving that it doesn’t take hundreds of Premier League appearances, Premier League titles and European Cups to become the standout players in the league.
It may not be the best league in the world, but there is still a standard that the golden boys of their generation would be foolish to dismiss.