Major League Soccer has long been seen by outsiders as a retirement home for high profile European players on their last legs, eager for one final pay day before hanging up the boots.
That line of thinking is true to an extent as the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard get set to make their debuts in July, but Sebastian Giovinco is a perfect example of the new type of designated player that MLS is hoping to attract.
There were a few eyebrows raised when the diminutive Italian opted to leave a title chase with Serie A giants Juventus for one of MLS’ perennial strugglers, Toronto FC.
A deal for the 28-year-old playmaker was initially agreed in January of this year, with Giovinco to head to Canada in the summer once his commitments at the bianconeri finished.
However, with game time at a premium limited in Turin, the move was pushed forward to the beginning of the 2015 MLS season.
Of course, someone of his age with 21 international caps for the Italian national side wasn’t going to come cheap, and Giovinco’s five-year deal with Toronto is reportedly worth around US$7 million per year, making him the highest paid player in the league.
With that sort of money comes great expectation, particularly from a fan base that has yet to see its team reach the MLS finals since joining the league in 2007.
This season is something of a fresh start in Toronto though as rookie coach Greg Vanney moulds a squad of his own, while a newly renovated BMO Field now seats more than 30,000 spectators when at capacity.
Thankfully, Giovinco is the sort of player needed to fill those seats and the “Atomic Ant” has contributed seven goals and six assists in twelve games, including a brace in his most recent outing against DC United last weekend.
Toronto claimed an excellent 2-1 win at RFK Stadium, with DC coach Ben Olsen heaping praise on the match winner afterwards:
It’s pretty simple. We went into the game trying to limit Giovinco’s influence in this game and that didn’t go so well.
He’s a special player. We’re gonna come up against very good players in this league and he’s certainly at the top of that list. On any given day, he can do what he did today.
Despite not playing as an out-and-out forward, Giovinco leads MLS for total shots on goal (61) and shots on target (28), and has completed a respectable 79.1% of his passes so far. His goals have come from both right and left foot, while his deftness can be seen regularly from set pieces.
Speaking after the recent 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, a game that saw Giovinco score a goal and set up two others, coach Vanney admitted that perhaps the playmaker’s talents weren’t utilised enough early in the campaign.
We keep finding him more now than I thought we did at the beginning of the year. We have more recognition of where he is, which is bringing him into the game more, and allowing him more opportunities to have those moments.
Giovinco wasn’t the only big name offseason recruit to sign on in Toronto; former Sunderland and Hull City striker Jozy Altidore and ex-Roma midfielder Michael Bradley were also convinced to join the revolution.
Altidore and Bradley are integral parts of the US national side though and have already missed some game time for internationals. With both players in contention to play for the US at next month’s Gold Cup, Giovinco’s influence will be even more vital as Toronto look to consolidate their spot in the playoff places.
Their average of 1.58 points per game is second only to DC in the Eastern Conference, and with games in hand on all of those around them there is a real chance that Toronto can climb even higher than their current third place standing.
Giovinco himself is confident that things are slowly but surely improving, and believes that the more he settles in MLS the better the outlook for Toronto.
My hope is to forge better relationships with my teammates on the field. Once that happens, the results will come more easily.
That is an ominous warning for the other teams who are already struggling to contain the league’s most in-form player.