TFC’s Giovinco named Major League Soccer MVP

Sportsnet's James Sharman is joined by senior soccer writer John Molinaro to comment on Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco’s 2015 MVP award, his durability during the season and expectations for 2016.

It wasn’t what he did so much as the way he did it.

The grace, elegance and class with which he scored goals, and how he played the game at a much higher level than any other star in the league’s history.

That’s what stood out the most about Sebastian Giovinco’s debut season for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, a memorable campaign that culminated with him being named the league’s Most Valuable Player on Wednesday.

Yes, Giovinco put up impressive numbers—the Italian had one of the best individual seasons in MLS history in 2015, as he led the league in goals (22), assists (16) and shots (181).

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Yes, he broke records—his 38 points was the most in a season, and he became the first MLS player to reach 20+ goals and 10+ assists in a single campaign.

Yes, he won a pile of accolades—he was named MLS player of the week three times and took home player of the month honours on two occasions. More awards came once the regular season was over: the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer (he finished tied with Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara, but assists was the tiebreaker), Newcomer of the Year, and the MLS Best XI, the league’s first all-star team.

Yes, he played an instrumental role in helping TFC clinch its first ever playoff berth—Giovinco had a hand in 38 of the team’s 58 goals, or 66 percent of the offensive production.

All impressive stuff. But it was Giovinco’s ability to bring fans to their feet, and make them shake their heads in disbelief with his quality and the sheer magnitude of his highlight reel goals that made him such a joy to watch.

Giovinco’s sense of style and panache on the pitch, his flair for the dramatic, and a knack for making the impossible look so routine—that’s what earned him the MVP award.

That he was the best player in MLS in 2015 was beyond question. Wednesday morning’s official announcement at Air Canada Centre, attended by a slew of TFC and MLS officials, was merely an anti-climatic confirmation. We had a sense that he was destined to win the league’s top individual honour long before this day.

The Italian, nicknamed the Atomic Ant, provided us with so many memorable performances over the course of the year. He was a one-man wrecking crew in a 4-4 draw away to New York City FC in July, scoring three goals in a nine-minute span and adding an assist. Another hat trick followed in a 4-1 win over Orlando City in August.

The one game that defined his genius, though, came on Oct. 14 when he scored THAT goal against the New York Red Bulls.

Minutes after entering the second half as a substitute, Giovinco went on a fabulous solo run, working the ball between both feet as he slalomed through a handful of New York players before firing home from inside the box, and scoring one of the best goals ever witnessed at BMO Field. This was Giovinco’s “bat flip” moment, coincidentally taking place on the same night as Jose Bautista’s iconic home run for the Blue Jays.

Giovinco’s magical goal stood up as the winner as Toronto officially clinched a playoff berth. More impressive was the fact he played 30 minutes for Italy in a Euro 2016 qualifier the day before in Rome. Instead of taking the day off, he immediately texted TFC coach Greg Vanney that he wanted to play, even though his plane would only arrive in Toronto a few hours before kickoff. When he did land in Toronto, he didn’t go home for a quick shower and a change of clothes—he headed straight to BMO Field from the airport. Two games on two continents in just over 24 hours. Incredibile, as they’d say in Italy.

While gob-smacked reporters hovered around him in the locker-room after the New York match, Giovinco was his usual humble self, downplaying the fatigue factor.

“This was a really important game for the team, the city, and the club and I knew it. I just tried to be available for selection,” Giovinco said through a translator.

Incredibly, Giovinco played in 33 of TFC’s 34 regular season contests, and made 32 starts. Perhaps that’s his most impressive statistic, as it speaks to his durability and toughness, and ability to survive in a physical league where he was routinely hacked down off the ball by opposing defenders.

Many believed when he signed with Toronto in January that it would spell the end of his career with the Italian national team. Quite the contrary, as it turned out. His exploits in MLS helped him earn a recall to the Azzurri for the first time in a year under manager Antonio Conte, and he should be in the Italian roster for Euro 2016 in France.

“Conte really appreciates a guy who is willing to put himself out to play for the national team, which Giovinco is. Unless something goes wrong with Giovinco in terms of injury, he’s in the Euro squad,” Rome-based reporter Paddy Agnew recently told Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast.

In playing his way back into the national team, Giovinco did a massive public service for MLS, proving that a move from one of the top league’s in the world to Canada and the United States isn’t a death sentence. Other MLS teams who will court international stars in the future will have an easier time of it thanks in no small part to Giovinco.

That a team the calibre of FC Barcelona—a side, lest we forget, that are the defending European champions and boasts two of the three finalists for the Ballon d’Or award—expressed an interest in signing Giovinco speaks to how much the Italian’s spectacular form in MLS was not only noticed but valued. Not bad for a league that’s often struggled for credibility in the global market place.

There were skeptics when it was announced back in January that Giovinco was leaving Italian club Juventus to sign with Toronto at the tender age of 27. He was still in his prime, and most “big name” foreign stars only came to MLS in the twilight of their careers. If he was really that good, why wasn’t he playing regularly for Juventus? Why come to MLS when he still had gas left in the tank?

Giovinco proved them wrong. TFC paid a premium for his services—he made $7.1 million this season—but the Italian didn’t treat MLS like a paid vacation, like so many oversees players have in the past. He came to work hard and make a difference. He did that in spades, showing great commitment and an unquenchable will to win.

Spare a thought for Kamara and Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber, the other two finalists for this award. They enjoyed outstanding seasons, and in any other year they would have been named the MVP. But not in 2015. Really, they didn’t have a chance—not with the year Giovinco had.

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