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The WTR Top 20, No. 3: Giovinco extraordinary even in off year

Seba’s 2017 was still rife with jaw-dropping moments. What’s his role going forward?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Surprised? Yeah, me too. I personally ranked him second, but Sebastian Giovinco comes in third in WTR’s writer poll.

There’s no denying it was a weird year for Seba. There were some tremendous ups (the Canadian Championship, the free kick supremacy, and so on), but 2017 had a few low points as well.

Giovinco struggled with injury a bit, missing nine MLS games and coming out early in another four. He also scored just seven goals from open play, none of which came after his late mark against the Montreal Impact on August 27 (he scored two more goals later in the season, but both were from set pieces).

It was frustrating to see Giovinco injured so often. MLS is a better league when he’s playing in it, but recurring quad injuries kept him out multiple times.

A comparison of Seba’s year-over-year stats with Toronto FC do show a bit of a statistical downturn in 2017, keeping in mind of course that he played more than 500 fewer minutes last season than in 2016.

Giovinco Offensive Stats

Year Minutes played Goals Assists Goals/90 min Free Kick Goals
Year Minutes played Goals Assists Goals/90 min Free Kick Goals
2015 2868 22 13 0.7 5
2016 2975 21 16 0.6 2
2017 2421 17 7 0.6 7

You’ll notice that Giovinco scored a heck of a lot more from the set piece than in 2016. Hilariously, I remember being pretty disillusioned with his free kick taking at the start of last season, wondering if Michael Bradley or Victor Vazquez should be given the job. Seba shut me up pretty quickly with his record-setting season of dead ball goals.

Consequently, Giovinco led MLS in 2017 with nine goals from outside the penalty area (in second place was David Villa with four). That’s pretty spectacular, and as far as glamour goes, it’s hard to score a prettier goal than many of Seba’s. More and more, I’m starting to genuinely believe Giovinco to be one of the greatest free kick specialists in the world (Italy could probably use him for that skill alone).

That said, a $7 million player should have more than one weapon at his disposal, no matter how shiny and impressive it is. MLS defenders have started to figure out how to stifle him after he embarrassed the whole league in 2015. In fairness, the solution is usually “double team him and foul him,” which is probably part of the reason why Jozy Altidore set a career high in goals last year.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

At times, Giovinco was visibly frustrated in open play this season. His shots kept getting blocked, and his legs just aren’t long enough to get him in front for the long balls sent his way from midfield. He’s exceptional when shooting from distance, but he’s found it harder and harder to get into the space required for a good effort there, simply because of how closely opposing defenders are on him.

I can’t in good conscience write an analysis of Giovinco’s 2017 season without recalling a couple of spectacular open play goals, of course. He put the team on his back in the Canadian Championship final, scoring a couple of heroic goals reminiscent of 2015.

I’m starting to subscribe to the theory that Seba is going to get fewer and fewer foul calls going forward. Referees know he has a bit of a tendency to go down easily, especially since he’s so good from free kick range. I mean, if I was that good at them, I’d probably want more opportunities.

So, he’s either got to find some more open play goals, or he has to drop back a little bit and feed Altidore (which he did very well in the playoffs). That’s what brings me to a conclusion I’ve been creeping toward since midway through November.

Warning: pure, unadulterated muppetry ahead. Just thought I’d let you know.

I think Seba’s role on this team could change a little bit. He’s obviously still an incredibly gifted player, one of (if not the) most talented in MLS. I’m just not sure he’s going to be the go-to guy for a goal. We saw in the playoffs how effective he can be as an assist man.

In fact, Giovinco had a crucial role in all but one of TFC’s 2017 playoff goals, even though he only scored one of them himself. I’d actually argue that Altidore’s goal against Columbus was Seba’s best moment of those playoffs — even better than his free kick in the NYRB tie. He brings the ball down perfectly, evades three Crew defenders, and allows Jozy to play it off Vazquez into the box.

Tim Bezbatchenko and co. have hinted they may be in the market for another option at striker. I’d assume they’re looking for a backup to Giovinco and Altidore, who can fill the void better than Tosaint Ricketts, Jordan Hamilton or Ben Spencer. It would be pretty smart to get someone who can fill in for Seba more effectively, because then you can manage Giovinco’s minutes more and hopefully avoid an injury.

But what if they’re not just looking for a backup?

This is a tin foil hat-level theory, but TFC have TAM to spare. What if they’re looking for another pure striker (maybe a younger, pacey one), to allow Seba and Vazquez to sit back a little bit? I’m thinking a bit like when Wayne Rooney no longer had the pace to play striker, so he dropped back to a number 10 role for Manchester United.

Obviously Giovinco isn’t an old man whose legs can’t carry him anymore. At 31 he’s still very quick and athletic. This change would be more tactical than compensatory.

Alternatively, what if TFC sign a more attacking wide player, and they move to a 4-3-3 kind of formation? Seba could probably play on the left wing pretty well actually, especially since he loves to cut in from that side a lot. Also, imagine Justin Morrow feeding him directly down the flank.

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In short, Seba remains easily the most talented player on this team. Perhaps he’s no longer the club’s most important piece, but he still brings a lot to the table. I’m honestly not sure what 2018 will hold for him; if he stays healthy and returns to banging in an open play goal every other game, I will be the first to call myself an idiot for speculating above.

All I know is TFC do still need him, and will for another couple years at least. Of course, none of Toronto’s current stars can stick around forever; Altidore is the youngest of the DPs at 28 years old. I think MLS is still at a point where the best attacking players come from the transfer market rather than the draft or academy, so I’d imagine TFC’s front office has a contingency plan in mind.

For now, though, Giovinco seems happy to see out the years of his contract in Toronto. I keep seeing armchair psychologists on Twitter trying to argue he’s looked disinterested (this was the worst after the Eastern Conference Final). No TFC player looked more amped up than Seba after the MLS Cup, though...

I’ll leave you with a treat. Here’s a compilation of Giovinco’s best free kick goals. Despite knowing how deadly he is from there, I can’t help but drop my jaw every single time. This will never get old.