There’s a lot to unpack from the second leg of the Eastern Conference semi-final against the New York Red Bulls. So much so, in fact, that a ton of storylines have vanished to the periphery of the main event - the Rumble in the Tunnel, as I’ve heard it called.
As a result, post-whistle shenanigans and missed calls have superseded the actual football played by Toronto FC that night. I noticed that Sebastian Giovinco took a beating in WTR’s Rate the Reds poll for the game, and perhaps rightly so - his petulance when referees side against him is concerning, and now it’s directly affected TFC’s prospects.
That said, I think it’s unfair to let that yellow card colour our overall view of his game against the Red Bulls. No, he didn’t score, and yes, he did go down easily a couple of times. Still, that second leg might’ve been Giovinco’s most dangerous open-play performance in weeks.
Seba’s pass accuracy on the day was 83.3%: better than every TFC player save Jonathan Osorio. He took four shots and had 49 touches. A look at his pass chart from the game shows he was pretty keen on playing it to the wing and corner (a lot of that came late in the game, during the dribbling clinic he, Osorio, and Victor Vazquez put on).
Also, I’m pretty sure one of those ‘unsuccessful’ passes was actually the chip that went into the net off Tyler Adams.
New York’s game plan to deal with Seba can’t be ignored. Just look at this moment from early in the game:
Not only is Felipe stapled to him, but Damien Perrinelle and Aaron Long both completely abandon ship in attack to follow the Italian. All this happens in spite of the fact that the Red Bulls have a throw-in next to TFC’s 18-yard box in a game where they have to score two away goals.
The four Red Bulls I’ve mentioned so far - Adams, Felipe, Perrinelle, and Long - are very much recurring characters in this story. Giovinco terrorized them pretty much all night.
Now, I’m not going to disagree with the criticism levied against Giovinco over the past week; selling tackles for fouls has always been part of his game.
It’s not like Seba was falling down out of nowhere, though. A lot of New York’s strategy revolved around swarming and neutralizing him.
Check out this moment of insanity in which Adams just shoves him to the ground unprovoked, right next to the referee.
It’s just... weird. In fairness, the whole game was weird. But this might explain why Seba and Adams were at each other’s throats for a lot of the match.
Anyway, to the video room.
Giovinco’s trademark (apart from his free kicks) is his ability to dribble in a phone booth with two or more defenders on him. The Red Bulls’ defenders are known to be leaky, and Seba exposed them several times, forcing them into chippy tackles.
Here, he takes a decent touch to put himself into space, lays it off nicely to Jozy Altidore and burns Perrinelle to find a spot to receive the ball. He then knocks it past Long, who (along with Felipe) seems to switch off, forcing Michael Murillo to come in and bodycheck Giovinco.
Next in a repetitive series of Seba abusing Red Bull centre-backs, watch the little 5’ 4” striker hold off the 6’ 1” Perrinelle, thread a perfect pass to Vazquez through a gauntlet of four defenders, and run into space in the box.
That’s just one instance of the pretty chemistry we saw between Giovinco and Vazquez (totally should’ve been a corner, by the way).
All the talk about Osorio’s disallowed goal has centred around how badly the referee messed up. That maelstrom has left the magnificent run leading up to it by the wayside.
Seba does it all here, and he was robbed of a great assist. He creates the space for himself with pace, he sends Long the wrong way, and he pushes off Perrinelle yet again before sending a perfect chip across to Osorio. It’s vintage Giovinco.
Now we come to the part of the game where Seba truly shone. After the 85th minute, TFC were in full-on keep-away mode, and in many ways it was a joy to watch - I’d go as far as to call it the most entertaining football of the night.
As I mentioned earlier, the trio of Giovinco, Vazquez, and Osorio put on a masterclass of ball retention, short passing and turtling in the corner.
Here’s one where Giovinco nutmegs Adams so badly that the 18-year-old falls down. Seba finds himself in space, has a crack at goal, then still recovers possession. He plays it off Vazquez into the corner, where he again shows no regard for Adams or Felipe’s dignity, looking like a rugby player as he drives forward and ultimately wins the free kick.
He’s not as successful in this next episode, but it’s a good example of his tenacity in trying to get the ball back after losing it. He calls for the pass from Osorio and then sprints to get it off Adams after Perrinelle’s interception.
This one is pretty similar; Giovinco’s chip over the top to Vazquez is cheeky, but my favourite part of the clip is when he basically rolls through Adams to get the ball back for Osorio. I’d hardly call Seba a tackler, but this was a fantastic late-game, knockout-tie play.
Okay, just one more clip (and more because it’s hilarious than because it’s impressive). Giovinco and Vazquez really toyed with the Red Bulls all night, and it’s on display here.
Right after Vazquez’s quick free-kick goal was disallowed, he makes a show of forcing New York to give him his 10 yards. Giovinco also gives himself an extra two feet of space here by walking forward in protest and drawing poor naive Adams out of position.
In the midst of the Red Bulls players looking at the referee and ensuring they’re far enough back, the Spaniard plays the free-kick quickly again to Osorio. Giovinco receives the pass in the corner, where all three New York defenders close in on him - apparently forgetting that TFC have another elite European player, who’s standing in an ocean of space behind them.
The chip over the top is perfect, and Vazquez very nearly scored a goal that hopefully would’ve stood that time.
It is masterfully manipulative.
Ultimately, I’m going to bat for Seba here. Yes, it’s inexcusable that he got himself suspended for a critical game. But he did a lot more for Toronto than his -49 Rate the Reds score suggests.
I’m cautiously optimistic for Giovinco’s return in the second leg of the conference final. If he continues to play like that, against a team that might not swarm him so aggressively, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finally bag an open-play goal (his last came in late August in Montreal).
2017 has, in many ways, been a tough year for the Atomic Ant. He’s struggled with injuries, and has rarely been able to play with Altidore for an extended string of games. In spite of that, he’s still been a magician on free-kicks and a sneakily talented passer.
A lot of the criticism toward Seba claims that MLS defenders have figured him out. No, they haven’t. MLS defenders have figured out that they can stop him by devoting their entire back line to marking and, occasionally, fouling him.
Sebastian Giovinco will be back with a vengeance when TFC return to BMO Field. Mark my words.