Saturday night showed us the dark side of MLS. The Jason-Kreis led New York City FC fouled Giovinco into the ground at BMO field. Although TFC were actually whistled for more fouls than NYCFC, it was clear that double-teams and fouls against Giovinco were all part of the gameplan. How does Giovinco get some protection?
One side of the argument would be to beat teams at their own game - fouls close to the box are very enticing for Giovinco. (As an aside, MLSSoccer.com readers voted him as their go-to for set pieces near the box, beating out Javier Morales, Diego Valeri, and everyone else in MLS). Have Giovinco be the (metaphorical) bigger man, and let the fouls come. The onus then is on the referee to make the calls, something no one who watches the league closely has much confidence in.
Or, is it MLS's responsibility to protect star players? Dempsey, Martins, Kaka, Giovinco, Villa, Lampard, Gerrard - these players have raised the profile of MLS, and they represent a considerable investment by the single-entity structure. Protecting them through referees seems to be in the best interests of everyone - fans get to see the best version of each team, the league gets to market its stars, and the players themselves are free from injury. In the interest of fairness, of course, this is not tenable.
Does another option exist? Should teams like TFC or Orlando slot a more physical presence into the lineup to balance the scales? Seattle has Osvaldo Alonso - one of the hardest tackling players in MLS - but TFC doesn't have a physical presence in midfield to either employ the same sort of tactic, or provide a reasonable threat of it to keep opposing teams in check.
While intentionally fouling a team's best player may read like a tactic from the antagonists of an 80's sports flick, its clearly effective. Investing in checks and balances - Truculence, as some might call it - may seem like a worthwhile option to some, but in soccer there is no room on the field for passengers, not to mention physical violence in retaliation to a star being targeted.
The reality of it all is that players like Giovinco - small, skilled players - will continue to be targeted, and Toronto FC need to learn to play through that. While Saturday's match was ugly soccer and a disappointing result, TFC have no time to sulk - Montreal awaits on Wednesday. The Impact are no stranger to this tactic - see their 2-1 against FC Dallas, where Mauro Diaz suffered 8 fouls - and the Reds must be ready.