TORONTO – The second leg of Toronto FC’s playoff series against the New York Red Bulls wasn’t so much a case of a single chicken coming home to roost for TFC, but rather an entire hen house.
An ill-tempered opening 45 minutes, to which both Toronto and New York contributed, spilled over into the tunnel leading back to the dressing rooms at BMO Field, with players and staff from both sides getting into a melee and having to be separated by security staff and the police.
In the aftermath, TFC forward Jozy Altidore and Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan were red carded for their roles in the ruckus. Altidore’s expulsion means he is suspended for the first leg of the Eastern Conference final against the Columbus Crew. Toronto is appealing the suspension, claiming it has evidence that clears Altidore of any wrongdoing and that would allow him to be reinstated.
While Altidore’s fate is murky at the moment, the immediate future of the Toronto’s other top scorer remains crystal clear. Having already been yellow carded in the first leg in New York, Sebastian Giovinco earned a second caution in Sunday’s return match in Toronto, and with it an automatic one-game suspension that rules him out for the away leg of the East final on Nov. 21.
It’d be one thing if the Italian’s second yellow was for making an ill-timed tackle, or if he was the recipient of a harsh decision from a card-happy ref. But that’s not what happened.
After wildly flailing his arms in exasperation and running to confront the official face-to-face in the first half when Toronto wasn’t awarded a deserved corner kick, the Italian doubled down in the 80th minute, doing almost the exact same thing after another call didn’t go his way — Giovinco thought he was unfairly brought down, but replays showed there was no foul. Giovinco received a reprieve earlier in the game, but referee Chris Penso wasn’t as forgiving this time around, and rightly booked him for dissent.
What that means is that, barring Altidore’s red card being rescinded, Toronto FC will be without their top scorers for the first leg in Columbus.
Honestly, it should never have come to this. Having been let off with a generous warning by Penso in the first half, Giovinco should have kept quiet when the decision he wrongly felt should have gone his way wasn’t called. He had to have known — and if he didn’t, he should have — that Altidore’s red card meant he’d be out for the next game, and there was all the more reason the Italian should have let it go. But Giovinco let his emotions get the better of him, and as a result he has put his team in a very difficult and compromising position due to his suspension. What should have been a straightforward game in Columbus is no longer so cut and dry.
That Giovinco lost his cool shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. God bless the Italian. He’s a wonderfully gifted player, one of the best in the league, who has played a major role in elevating the Reds from pretenders to MLS Cup contenders since coming to Toronto in 2015. His skill and class, not to mention how he’s helped to elevate the standard of play in MLS, can’t be questioned.
But he’s always walked that very fine line between maintaining his composure and being a whiner, and he routinely fails in navigating his way through the slender pace between those two states.
To be fair to him, Giovinco takes a fair amount of physical abuse in games. Whether it’s any more than the average forward in MLS is up for debate, but in his case, it’s far more pronounced. At five-foot-four, the Atomic Ant is an easy target for opposing defenders who take full advantage of diminutive frame. There’s been games where he’s been absolutely mugged off the ball. He gets frustrated, and most times he shrugs it off, but there’s been instances when he’s understandably lost his cool.
Sunday was different. It wasn’t a case of a battered and bruised player who was pushed over the edge. Instead, it was Giovinco acting out like a petulant child when he didn’t get his way.
MLS teams were warned at the beginning of the season that players can’t show up the refs and get in their face, or else they run the risk of punishment. Giovinco knew he was asking for trouble, and he managed to find it. You’d like to think someone of his experience would have been able to avoid earning a yellow after being left off the hook earlier in the match. But he didn’t, and now Toronto likely has to play the biggest game of the season without its two starting forwards and biggest goal threats.
After the game, TFC coach Greg Vanney bemoaned the state of officiating and called out New York for its physical style of play. But he also didn’t let his players entirely off the hook.
“Our guys need to control their emotions,” Vanney said with a hint of frustration.
It’s a lesson that Giovinco would be well-advised to learn.