That the expected, hyped, awaited, delayed, announced and finally postponed debut of Frank Lampard with NYC FC didn’t happen during Sunday’s game against Toronto was no doubt a disappointment to many.
But something else did happen which may turn out to be of more significance for NYC. Simply that the sport of soccer took over Yankee Stadium and gave us a game to remember, a thoroughly invigorating 90 minutes of the sport at its glittering best. It ended 4-4, which seemed to me a fair result.
Yes, we got no fewer than eight goals. Before I go beyond that, please, please, do not listen to the analysts who’ll be downgrading those goals, belittling them with their post facto charts and their diagrams, to explain to us -- we who do not understand, that is -- why the goals shouldn’t have been scored, why they were all due to defensive screw-ups and so on. And thus is the spontaneous enjoyment, the delight, of this sport reduced to dry theory. Please, please -- forget those guys.
The joy of the game, its real pulse and blood was thriving and throbbing at full blast on the field and in the stands at Yankee Stadium. No Lampard? No ... but there was another Designated Player on view, Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco, and what a game he had.
With his first-half hat trick he not only ensured his own team a share of the points, but he gave NYC something that has been lacking so far in their games. That is genuine, rather than marketing-hyped, excitement.
This was precisely the sort of game that MLS needs more of, many more. For NYC, the much-marketed local-rivalry games against the Red Bulls have not even come close to the drama and sheer joy that this wonderful game produced. An early 2-0 lead for NYC. Only for an astonishing and quite brilliant nine-minute hat trick from Giovinco to give Toronto a 3-2 lead at half time. A determined NYC got the tying goal 20 minutes into the second half from a David Villa penalty kick. Only for Marco Delgado -- with a precious assist from Giovinco -- to make it 3-4. At 84 minutes Patrick Mullins had the home fans on their feet as he tied it for NYC. 4-4. The way things were going, there was still time for more goals. The chances were there for both sides, the level of breath-baited excitement remained at its highest. Maybe goal-exhaustion (a rather rare affliction these days) set in, but there was no more scoring.
Who could make that up? Perfect choreography for drama and entertainment. And again I hear those killjoy analysts pedantically explaining why drama and entertainment should not be taken into account, why tactics and making the right runs and not making “silly” errors are all that matter.
Bah. On this Sunday afternoon we got a glorious game in which both teams played their part. But in which there can be no denying that, at the center of all the wonderment, was the wee figure of Giovinco.
To say that he looked like Lionel Messi is praise indeed, but nothing less than the truth. Or part of it -- for Giovinco also played like Messi. With Messi standing at only 5-foot-7, how could one ever talk of a mini-Messi? But maybe that’s OK for Giovinco, a wee man of 5-5. Both players are 28 years old.
On Sunday we saw repeated glimpses of Messi from Giovinco -- the immediate and easy control of the ball, the close dribbling, those short bursts of acceleration, just enough to get away from tacklers, the precise short passing (that terrific assist on Delgado’s goal), and the decisive finishing. The calm, masterful way that he lifted the ball over goalkeeper Josh Saunders for his third goal was sheer, majestic Messi. What more could one desire? (To which Giovinco himself would no doubt answer “Two more goals” -- for he had the clear chances to score a couple more).
Even so, there was more. A lot of hidden benefits came with this Giovinco masterclass. Thus:
* A display that might -- only might, I’m afraid -- just shut up those who insist that size is necessary to be a soccer player. Giovinco has suffered from that slur -- his career in Italy was always shadowed by the suggestion that he “wasn’t big enough.”
* A clear signal that selecting your Designated Players carefully is worth the bother, and that goalscoring and dynamic offensive play should be the first consideration. Robbie Keane has already underlined that point. Here, we got Giovinco’s hat trick, but the fireworks were also greatly helped by two goals from NYC’s DP David Villa.
* I’m less confident on this one, but here goes anyway: We got an example of just how entertaining the sport, left to itself, can be. A reminder that great games are rarely the result of hype. Rather the opposite, hype usually creates disappointing let-downs. Is it too much to ask that MLS concentrates more on getting the right coaches on the benches and the right players on the field, and less on marketing maneuvers?
* This tremendous outburst of joyous soccer will have worked wonders for NYC. Not quite what the quicksilver Giovinco or Toronto would have had in mind, but that’s the perverse way that things often turn out. NYC needs to find a way to re-run this sort of game, and the tremendous atmosphere that it created. Easy to say, but the perversity of the sport makes it difficult to arrange. Whether Lampard and Andrea Pirlo might turn out to be the secret ingredients, is yet to be discovered.
* Goals. Back to those damn analysts. Don’t let them or anyone tell you that goals are not that important. They are all important. Especially in MLS, a league still trying to convince Mr. and Mrs. USA that soccer is a sport worth watching. So NYC and Toronto tied their game. The same result that we got recently in the Copa America final. But there is a world of difference between a 4-4 scoreline, and the 0-0 of the Copa final. The difference between soccer that is robustly, enjoyably vibrant, and soccer that seems intent on strangling itself into inertia. (I shall have more to say about that 0-0 Copa game shortly).
* Refereeing. There is no doubt that referee Ted Unkel deserves praise. He helped Sunday’s game along by awarding four penalty kicks. A record number for an MLS game, they tell me. But justified. The reluctance of referees to call a PK -- and to make matters worse by inventing an absurd diving call to cover their cop-out -- has long sent the wrong message, i.e. that defenders can expect to get away with dodgy tackles in their own penalty area.
I would like to think that Sunday’s NYC vs Toronto game marks a critical point in the maturing of MLS. A game in which genuine soccer values burst through the marketing miasma to make it clear that the sport itself can provide its own hype.
MLS, and NYC have a lot to thank Giovinco for. And he has given them plenty to think about.