A cursory observation of the stands at BMO Field in Toronto on the night of August 5th showed a surprising number of empty seats. The folks in attendance seemed a little quieter than expected as well, even as Toronto FC, led by a hat trick from MLS Player of the Month for July, Sebastian Giovinco, cruised to a 4 – 1 victory over Orlando City SC.
Twitter traffic and the variety of commentary on Toronto FC focused blogs also doesn’t seem to have the fervor and general buzz of years and even months past when larger issues and question marks abounded.
No doubt TFC has lost a good portion of support given the calamities of years gone by, but perhaps the current crop of fans out there are just content to see a competent squad consistently maintain a playoff position, at least for now. Let’s not forget either, that anyone familiar with the history of Toronto FC is quite hardened to disappointment, and is programmed to temper expectations.
Many will also recall that it was around this time last season that Toronto FC went into a major funk. Injuries to Jermain Defoe, a lack of depth, and the failure of the squad in total to avoid lacklustre, anemic showings, led to a major slide down the Eastern Conference standings and an ultimate failed season.
The difference this year is of course, Sebastian Giovinco. His performance against Orlando City SC; characterized by numerous attacks, multiple goals, and an aggressive, lethal style, is becoming more and more common.
While some teams seem to find ways to shut him down, whether using physicality to take away space or cutting off his service, it seems to be only temporary. Even New York City FC found this out from their first to second meetings with Toronto. Stifling him with tight, physical marking in the first game got the job done, but by the second he shredded their defense on numerous occasions.
Certainly, Toronto FC has never seen a player like Giovinco, and in some respects, neither has Major League Soccer. A designated player, in his prime, along with experience at the highest level, both for club and country, has been rare. Both David Beckham and Thierry Henry delivered an immediate impact, but they were in their twilight, certainly not raising the prospect of national team call-ups with MVP calibre play. While no one has guaranteed Giovinco anything in that regard either, his name is certainly at the forefront in current MVP discussion.
Beyond the obvious episodes in which Giovinco has taken Toronto FC on his back and led them to positive results, an additional effect is evolving; the ability to improve the performance of those around him. Recent outings by Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio, and even Colin Warner by have demonstrated a wider scope of offensive power, as these names are beginning to appear on the score sheet and their overall offensive involvement and creativity are becoming noticeable.
Interestingly, the anticipated Gold Cup absences of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Jonathan Osorio have come and gone with no real ground lost. Toronto FC currently sits third in the East with games at hand on all but three of their Conference opponents. The continually reliable play of Benoit Cheyrou and the steady support of Jackson and Justin Morrow all stand out as an indication of a new depth, certainly beyond last year’s version.
Arguably, Orlando was a weakened team without Kaka and Brek Shea on August 5th. Toronto FC has predictably had more success against weaker opponents. It will be their performance against stronger sides, such as upcoming Sporting Kansas City, that will determine just how far they will go. Giovinco will need to make sure that he is a factor in each game, that he will not relent from his usual ways of driving at opposing back lines, unsteadying them as he cuts with speed from wide areas, and as he generates his own chances with creativity.
Beyond Giovinco, Jozy Altidore will need to refocus on offensive productivity and stay away from the retaliatory style that got him red carded in New England recently. Michael Bradley will also need to return healthy and as needed, take over games as he has been known to do. A new dimension will be the addition of freshly acquired Herculez Gomez from Puebla FC of Mexico’s Liga MX. Gomez brings a wealth of experience and strength that may be just the ingredient to help Giovinco flourish even more.
Perhaps the greatest step-up will need to come from a back line that has been bleeding goals lately. With 16 goals allowed in the last six games, this is a group that seems to have forgotten how to play the disciplined style that enabled them to earn low scoring results on the road back in May. A settled Damien Perquis and an adjusted Ahmed Kantari, working in tandem to control games from the back are absolute necessities. Right now, Toronto FC plays to outscore the opposition, and down the stretch, that’s just not good enough.
As critical as defense and total depth are, it will be the brilliance of Giovinco that will write the final story of a successful season for Toronto FC. Fans may be happy to maintain a playoff spot, but both players and management have set sights on the MLS cup. Given that Giovinco is such a huge piece of a new winning identity, it might very well be possible. In fact, most of the squad is so new that very few would even potentially carry the burden or inferiority of past failed seasons.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images