MVP winner Sebastian Giovinco sets new standard in Major League Soccer
It's easy to forget now, but Sebastian Giovinco's signing in January was hailed as a massive moment for Major League Soccer. Here was a world-class talent coming not in his final years, but at his peak.
Canadian daily the National Post argued that "Toronto FC has once again raised the bar" with the arrival of the Italian national teamer from Serie A giant Juventus, while this site simply stated that "Giovinco would be a game-changing addition for MLS." What the 5-foot-4 attacker conceded in physical stature, he made up for in limitless potential.
But MLS's 20-year history is littered with Designated Players who arrived with great fanfare and departed after delivering minuscule returns on their seven-figure salaries. When it comes to the United States' first division, past success in other parts of the world is no guarantee of future return. From Claudio Reyna and Julian de Guzman to Rafa Marquez and Luis Angel Landin, the biggest names seemed to fail more often than they succeeded. The trend continued in 2015, as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo all underachieved by significant margins.
Given the precedent, no one would have been surprised if Giovinco failed to thrive for Toronto, a perpetually discombobulated team that perennially underachieved. However, not only did the 28-year-old meet expectations, he exceeded them rather dramatically.
Giovinco was almost always excellent, frequently spectacular and occasionally transcendent while putting together an astonishing campaign. The Italian led MLS in goals, assists, shots, shots on goal and game-winning goals. He had almost an entire section of the Goal of the Year bracket to himself.
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He won the Golden Boot and sprinted away with the Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player trophy as easily as he outpaced opposing defenses. Giovinco, quite simply, was better than anyone expected he would be.
It wasn't just that he succeeded, it was how he did so. He made slick runs through two, three and four defenders before unleashing devastating shots into the corners of the net. He imagined daring chips, then effortlessly lofted the ball over astonished goalkeepers. He delivered inch-perfect passes for Jozy Altidore and other teammates to finish with ease. He made playing look simple.
And he made watching fun. The never-stop nature of the world's game transformed soccer into the sport of the internet. Fans communicate in gifs and Vines, in tweets and highlight clips. A wonder strike or a moment of magic will find a global audience no matter the location. For MLS -- a league that has its issues but is better than the backwater retirement outpost many Europeans consider it to be -- these highlights are essential. They contribute to raising the league's credibility across the planet. Giovinco provided more than his fair share.
Through it all, the attacker cared. He battled injuries, returning stronger. He didn't complain about the hard artificial surfaces in some MLS stadiums, nor about the long flights. If anything, he seemed to thrive on the adversity.
In October, Giovinco spent one day helping Italy qualify for Euro 2016, hopped on a plane, flew across the Atlantic, arrived in Toronto three hours before kickoff and scored the goal of the season that also qualified TFC for its first playoff appearance. Just a typical 24-hour period at two separate offices a third of the way across the globe.
Giovinco's debut season wasn't perfect. TFC struggled with inconsistency, which is troubling for a team with a salary hit nearly five times that of the Columbus Crew. While the squad made the playoffs, they did so as the six-seed and got walloped by regional rival the Montreal Impact in the knockout round. The year ended much too early to consider it a complete success by any definition.
To fault Giovinco, however, would be misguided. He added electricity and excitement to games at BMO Field and beyond. His continued presence on the Azzurri is a sign for other international talents that their national-team careers won't stall if they choose to come to MLS. (Add FC Dallas winger Fabian Castillo's call-up to the Colombia squad in September and commissioner Don Garber has himself some nice selling points to recruit players.)
Giovinco was good for his team, good for his league and good for the sport in North America. If anything, he might be too good.
The ease with which he dominated can easily be twisted around, turned into an admonishment of the talent that exists in the rest of the league. While that argument isn't completely off base, Giovinco's past resume and current heroics make the case that he'd be an above-average player in any league in the world. And besides, what MLS needs as it slowly establishes itself in the international soccer landscape and the American sporting consciousness is attention.
Twenty-two goals, 16 assists and innumerable highlights are worth the haters getting another short arrow in their quiver. In 2015, the Atomic Ant lifted his weight and then some, and MLS is much better for his considerable exploits.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.