Commentary

Toronto FC goes all in -- again

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

By signing Sebastian Giovinco in the prime of his career and also securing his services during the MLS preseason rather than in the summer, Toronto FC has achieved two crucial elements of a major-league sports team.

It has grabbed a top-notch player anxious to restore his reputation, and it has strengthened the league’s rather sorry stable of player nicknames. If the “Atomic Ant” plays half as well on the field as his moniker works in a headline, TFC is destined for great things, or least the playoffs, which after eight straight failures would be accomplishment enough.

There aren’t just enough good nicknames in MLS. Dubbing Michael Bradley “Il Generale” during his stint at Chievo hit perfectly that high standard of catchiness and correctness. There also aren’t enough good playmakers, and by importing Giovinco to join Bradley in midfield and work with him through preseason, TFC has in effect told its following, “Okay we spent like crazy last year and it crashed and burned, but this time we got it right.”

Last year’s triple swoop of Bradley, Gilberto and Jermain Defoe at a combined cost of $100 million blew up spectacularly. Since signing a year ago, Bradley has undergone two significant foot procedures. Gilberto scored seven goals while battling injuries and is the odd man out on the DP list now that Giovinco has been signed and TFC has acquired Jozy Altidore to replace Defoe, the team leader in goals with 11 who bolted back to England after being hobbled by groin problems the second half of the season.

Giovinco is cut from a mold that seems to work in MLS, that of a exceptionally skilled yet high-energy player who can probe at the fringe of the attacking third to slip balls to teammates or slash forward to threaten the goal himself. In theory, he’s a more-amped version of RSL maestro Javier Morales, and something like ex-FC Dallas dynamo David Ferreira.

At 28, he’d fallen down the depth chart at Juventus. His motivation is different than that of Defoe, whose focus seemed to fade after he’d been excluded from England’s World Cup team and encountered his groin problems. Giovinco needs a fresh start and escape from a talent-laden Juve squad, which always seems to have several talented and eager replacements on hand. Teams like Juve mirror the attitude of the NFL, where the mantra of “next man up” is ruthlessly applied for all but the very best players.

Giovinco suffered an ankle injury in a challenge from Esteban Cambiasso in late March 2013 that earned the latter a red card, and a week later another crunching tackle inflicted heavy bruising and medial collateral damage to his right knee. He had played only seven games for Juve this season and his contract was due to expire in June. FIFA player statues stipulate that a player in the last six months of his contract can cut his own deal and when his link to TFC was formalized began the discussions regarding an earlier arrival.

Giovinco scored 20 goals and recorded 23 assists in 130 games for Juve. On paper, he can slot into the attacking midfielder role behind Altidore, with Bradley and Jonathan Osorio buttressing the TFC midfield. If those four players are clicking, TFC can open up teams and get chances.

“With the addition of Jozy and his connection with Michael Bradley, we looked at our DPs to make sure those three players complement each other,” said head coach Greg Vanney when the original deal was announced. “They are the core of our team on the field, and they need to be making decisions for us, driving us forward and creating for the supporting cast around them.

“Today, we are connecting all of our pieces: Michael plays deeper in midfield, Giovinco is our playmaker that connects us to the attacking half and Jozy finishes things off for us.” That’s all theory, of course, but it makes sense.

This time around TFC has also addressed other problem areas. Only four teams conceded more goals than the 54 allowed by the Reds last year. Experienced French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou is on board, as is a native of Troyes, Polish international defender Damien Perquis. A trade with Seattle brought defender Eriq Zavaleta, Vanney's nephew, to TFC.

Last year, TFC used Doniel Henry, Nick Hagglund and Steven Caldwell as centerbacks and seldom did TFC display sufficient solidity in the middle. The inexperience of Henry and Hagglund -- combined ages last year of 43 -- cost TFC a few goals, and Henry’s move to West Ham gives Vanney an opportunity to add some savvy to the back. Vanney played against Perquis, 30, in the French league. Caldwell is 34, so TFC also needs to plan for the future

By signing “Formica Atomica,” TFC served it fans and the league quite well in those crucial areas of publicity and ambition. By getting him in January, the club took on additional expense at a critical phase.

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