There has been a lot to like about Toronto FC away from home this year, and they finished the regular season with the league’s best road record for their efforts.
What helped them get there, though, was having a cheat code to tap in every so often.
After failing to score - and making very little impact - in his first five road games in 2017, Sebastian Giovinco has now hit the net seven times in his last seven appearances away from BMO Field.
There’s not really been any great turnaround in his performances, though; Giovinco has just started hitting free-kicks at an otherworldly rate. Of those seven goals, five have been dead balls.
The Italian has created more than one chance in only one road game this season, and that was back in June against the New England Revolution. He’s still getting shots off at a decent rate, but two open-play goals and one assist in just short of 1,000 minutes is hardly the kind of impact you’d expect from an MVP contender.
Monday night’s Eastern Conference semi-final first leg at the New York Red Bulls was more of the same: it was a bit like watching Giovinco try to stamp his mark on a Champions League game, back in his Juventus days, only to get swallowed up by bigger, faster defenders.
Giovinco is older than he was then, with more miles on the clock, and his opponents now are MLS-class rather than world-class. He’s not untouchable in this league anymore.
But he keeps smacking in these remarkable free-kicks and it’s seven goals in seven, and more when it matters most than ever. He’s driven wins in Orlando, Chicago, Montreal and now New Jersey - as well as saving a draw in Atlanta - with his set-piece mastery since the start of July despite a lay-off of over a month due to injury.
It’s a paradox: there are often at least two or three players on the field that appear of greater importance to this Toronto team nowadays than Giovinco, but he has done more to put trophies in the club cabinets this year than the two before it combined.
For all but that one, special kick of the ball, this was Jozy Altidore’s night. No matter how isolated he appeared as Toronto sat deep and looked to spring counter-attacks, the ball just would not leave his feet.
“I thought Jozy was outstanding,” Greg Vanney said. “I mean, he played big, he played physical, and days where you’re not getting out in transition all that great, you need somebody who you can target, who you can play off of, who can hold the ball, you can who can bring people in.
“Jozy gave us some runs into channels that allowed us some things, so his contribution was huge.
“It wasn’t, again, on the scoreboard, but I think Jozy is more than that. We've learned that over the years, that Jozy is the consummate team guy. He'll do whatever he needs to do on the day, and he doesn't get too caught up on how many goals he scores. We needed him to be the big guy today, and he was great.”
At home, the roles can be reversed: Giovinco gets more support from his teammates in that environment, meaning opportunities for smart link-up play and fewer one-on-one battles with defenders.
Altidore has been in excellent scoring form at home over the past three months but he loves those one-on-ones, and doesn’t always get the same amount of pitch in which to stretch his legs and push and pull opponents around when they’re sitting deeper at BMO Field.
So long as Toronto can do what’s expected of them on Sunday and see off the Red Bulls to extend their season, they’ll be faced with one final road game in the conference finals.
That fixture might be the biggest (theoretical, for the moment) obstacle left between them and the MLS Cup. If they’re to win again, Giovinco and Altidore will almost certainly have parts to play.
But the American is now the man leading the attack on the toughest trips - at least until his partner figures out what buttons he needs to press this time.
Moor out, Hagglund in?
Drew Moor has taken a bit of heat lately and while some of it has been more than a little over the top, it hasn’t come out of nowhere.
You can make a few excuses for him of varying legitimacy - the strong wind during the Montreal game, the switch to a back four against Atlanta, the questionable penalty call against the Red Bulls - but the veteran has been a step slow in dealing with situations more often than we’re used to over the past few weeks.
I have to admit I was taken aback a touch by this admission Moor made in an interview with Sportsnet earlier this month:
“This is the time of the year where you don’t think about being fatigued. I probably am. I feel a little more heavy-legged now that I did in April or May, but fatigue can’t be an issue. And if it is, then you need to have a seat.”
No one would doubt that Moor has the mental strength to compete despite fatigue, but that doesn’t mean the fatigue isn’t having an effect.
We saw Nick Hagglund step into the middle of the back three earlier in the year when Moor missed time due to his heart scare, and I expected that would be a transition that would continue at a quicker pace in 2018.
But now it might be sped up earlier than expected if Moor’s ankle injury is anything that puts him out for more than a week or two. Fortunately, Hagglund - who has had his own health issues this season - played as if he had never been gone in the second half against the Red Bulls.
As much as I like Hagglund as a player, though, I’m not ready to disregard the loss of Moor.
Toronto would feel any potential Victor Vazquez absence more heavily, sure, but the value of having seen the kind of challenges the playoffs throw at you before should not be underestimated. Moor has seen it all.