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Why Sebastian Giovinco & Jozy Altidore’s comeback is more important than their absence

Seba hasn’t always caught fire after a spell on the sidelines this season.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

It’s the same 16 days as in 2016, but something about the gap between the Eastern Conference semi-final and final has felt particularly long this year.

“I’m getting kind of anxious,” admitted Jonathan Osorio. “It’s a long time between games,” Alex Bono said. “It’s too long,” offered Sebastian Giovinco more bluntly.

Tosaint Ricketts took a more optimistic view, pointing out that there is “never enough time to prepare”.

Ricketts may have been in a better mood than Giovinco as a result of the fact that for him, the break is about to end.

The confirmation Toronto FC received on Thursday that Jozy Altidore will join Giovinco on the sidelines due to suspension when the Reds visit the Columbus Crew on Tuesday night all but assured Ricketts of a place in the starting lineup.

Osorio is expected to draw in too, with Victor Vazquez pushed into a more advanced role to mitigate Giovinco’s absence.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

For Giovinco and Altidore, there is another week to kill. Both players will have gone 24 days without a game by the time the Crew visit BMO Field on November 29.

That’s frustrating for them - not least because neither accept that they deserved their punishment - but it also may be a challenge for Greg Vanney, particularly where Giovinco is concerned.

In September, when some muscle tightness Giovinco felt against the San Jose Earthquakes turned into a five-week injury lay-off, Vanney believed his staff had been able to “connect the dots” and find a root cause. He theorized that Italian was at risk not so much when the schedule was busy, but when it was empty.

“Seba has honestly showed his greatest physical strength when he’s playing games consistently - over and over and over,” Vanney said. “It’s when we have these little breaks and we come back from them that we’re showing signs.”

The San Jose game was immediately after an international break.

In July, after two weeks off during the Gold Cup, Giovinco came off in the first half of a match against New York City FC. Luckily, on that occasion his withdrawal for precautionary reasons was no more than that and he played three days later.

The problem goes beyond injuries, though.

In the four games Giovinco has played after a break of 20 days or more this season (including the opener against Real Salt Lake), he has no goals or assists. Toronto have been shut out in three of those four games, with Altidore’s winner against the Montreal Impact on October 15 their sole goal.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

There’s mitigating circumstances there - the season opener is unpredictable, the second game was against the league’s best defensive team (Sporting Kansas City) and the third an all-round nightmare in New England - but the evidence is sufficient enough to suggest that Giovinco benefits from a game or two to get back up to speed.

He won’t get that again this season, with his return set to come in the second half of a tie that most expect to be finely poised after Tuesday’s first leg.

The good news lies in that aforementioned connecting of the dots: Vanney and Toronto now believe they have a better understanding of how Giovinco needs to be handled and can adjust his schedule accordingly during his current period on the sidelines.

“We’re just very aware, as he is, of his workload every single day and making sure that the numbers we want him to achieve, he’s achieving them,” Vanney said on Thursday. “At the end of training today, he went to the guys and said ‘did I get to the number that I needed to?’

“We’re trying to replicate, along the way, him actually getting full matches, as many as we think are appropriate in this window in terms of workload, just to try to keep his match fitness and durability up.

“I don’t think there’s going to be an issue with that. I think Seba’s been training extremely hard and I think in terms of keeping his sharpness and all of that stuff, I don’t think there will be an issue with that.”

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

There is less of a sample size to go on this season with Altidore, who has mostly stayed healthy, but he was able to make a telling contribution upon his return from injury against the New York Red Bulls at the start of October without playing especially well.

There is probably not another team in MLS that could have ambitions beyond a tight 0-0 in Columbus in these circumstances, and it speaks to TFC’s depth (again) that there has been no great panic about the absence of their two biggest attacking stars.

It goes without saying, of course, that Altidore, who was terrific in the away leg of the semi-final, will be missed and though Giovinco has been a mixed bag on the road, Toronto would love to have him standing over a free-kick or two.

But there is a case to be made that their plan B is better suited to the task at hand, with Osorio steadying things in midfield and Ricketts sure to be sniffing for trouble against a team that likes to play out of defence but doesn’t always get it right.

More pertinent to the outcome of this tie than Giovinco and Altidore’s absence in the first leg may be how quickly Toronto can get them up and running in the second.