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WTR Top 20, No. 1: Sebastian Giovinco returns with a chip on his shoulder

It’s been a tumultuous winter for the best player in MLS.

MLS: MLS Cup Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It is impossible for him to avoid on the pitch, but Sebastian Giovinco is not one to try to draw attention to himself off it.

Part of the appeal of Toronto and MLS to the Italian is the relatively quiet life it affords him compared to Turin, where he is recognized by everyone and had long suffered under the heavy burden of being compared to Alessandro Del Piero while coming through the ranks at Juventus.

But while a perfect offseason for Giovinco might be something like Christmas with his family in Italy followed by a relaxing week or two at home in Toronto - or perhaps somewhere a little warmer - before training camp begins, this winter the spotlight has barely come off him.

MLS: Playoffs-Toronto FC at New York City FC Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

First there was the great pitch scandal of 2016, as Giovinco dared to suggest that having two teams play on the BMO Field surface instead of one may have contributed to its poorer condition than usual at the end of a long season. Having cut a frustrated figure throughout the MLS Cup final before being substituted in extra time, the 30-year-old explained that he had been struggling with cramp.

That admission drew criticism from those who felt he was making excuses for the loss to the Seattle Sounders and nonsensical mud slinging from a few others.

Once that had died down, there was China. We might never know how serious the supposed interest from the cash-rich Super League really was, but perhaps it served as a reminder to Toronto, as they push to take this team over the edge as a championship contender, that the 30-year-old is not going to be around forever.

“There was a little smoke,” Bill Manning said recently. “There was agents involved and the hard part is you don’t know what’s real and what’s not, so we got a lot of talk but we never got an official offer from a club. At the end of the day, there was smoke but there was nothing to it.

“I honestly don’t know [if the agent got an offer]. Our position all along, Tim [Bezbatchenko] and I, was that we needed an official offer from an official club. We never got it.”

My suspicion remains that Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, was making a play to land his client improved terms in Toronto, but so far the Reds do not appear to have bitten.

“No [we haven’t talked about a new contract] - I mean, look, he still hasn’t even hit the halfway mark of his contract yet,” Manning added. “The most important thing with any player, especially with a player like Sebastian, is that he’s happy and he enjoys it here. Because if he wasn’t happy here, he’d be coming to us saying ‘move me’. That’s not a conversation - it’s a conversation where there’s interest maybe in him and he’s saying unless it’s crazy money, this is where I love to be. Which is a good situation for us.”

MLS: Toronto FC vs Chicago Fire Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

With Giovinco set to lead the line in the season opener against Real Salt Lake, Manning and Bezbatchenko appear to have come out of the ordeal unscathed. “We’re still very close with [Giovinco’s] group,” the general manager said. “They were just in town a couple of weeks ago and no [there’s no tension], I think that’s just the global game.

“I don’t think in North America we experience that as readily as maybe we would if we were in Italy every day - I think the mass media are very keen on rumours and using the media as a way to build up interest. But no, I don’t think… obviously, would I prefer that [D’Amico] doesn’t speak in public? Yeah, but I can only control so many things and I’m not going to worry about those things day to day.”

Caught up in all of that as we have been, there has not been much written or said about the fact that Giovinco’s production dipped slightly in 2016. After clearly being the most dangerous goal-assist dual threat in the league in his first season, Ignacio Piatti put up better combined numbers last year and Giovani Dos Santos was about equal to Giovinco on a per-90-minute basis, too.

Giovinco season comparison

Season Goals Non-penalty goals Assists Chances created Open-play chances created
Season Goals Non-penalty goals Assists Chances created Open-play chances created
2016 0.63 0.48 0.52 1.9 1.27
2015 0.71 0.62 0.42 2.01 1.43

All stats are per 90 minutes of play in the regular season.

It’s not anything to be particularly worried about - there are plenty of good players in MLS and that he was the third or fourth-best attacking player in a particular season is hardly a significant drop-off - but it did, of course, cost him a nomination for the MVP award, something which seemed to bother him when the shortlist was announced.

Any motivation that offers Giovinco for 2017 is good news for Toronto, as is the fact that he still had the second-best expected goals + assists rate in MLS last season. An explanation of expected goals can be found here but in short, David Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Dos Santos and Piatti all outperformed their ‘expected’ goalscoring numbers based on the chances they had to a greater degree than Giovinco, and that is likely to fluctuate over time (the opposite was the case in 2015).

Suggesting Giovinco needs to ‘bounce back’ in any way would be ridiculous, but Toronto fans have every reason to expect a big year.

In Goal.com’s recent anonymous survey of MLS decision-makers, 63 per cent picked Giovinco for this season’s MVP award and 60 per cent chose him as the player they would build a franchise around (Michael Bradley was second on 13 per cent). He has set such a high standard from day one that it is easy not to appreciate just how good he is, but no one is more important to Toronto FC and no one will play a bigger part in any potential run back to the MLS Cup final. It will be a privilege to watch him for a third year.