TORONTO – For as much as Sebastian Giovinco made his presence known in Toronto FC's first appearance in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, there has been something missing from his game through the 270 minutes he has played since returning from an injury on October 15.
The difference was particularly stark against the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal at Red Bull Arena on Monday, where Giovinco had just a single shot on goal – during the regular season, Giovinco averaged over five shots per match.
He did, of course, score from that lone shot, a gorgeous free kick – his 7th of the season and 14th in MLS – but the point stands.
Asked on Wednesday what Toronto needs to do to get the Atomic Ant more involved, Greg Vanney simply said: “We have to complete more passes.”
“We have to transition better, get out of our defensive shape and into an attacking posture a little bit quicker,” continued Vanney. “So that we can put a few more passes together, bring him and the other guys into the game.”
Vanney was not surprised: “In a game where you're playing [in] transition more, you don't get as many touches as you would in a game where you have a high number of possessions and a lot of possession. It was the way the night played out.”
New York had 64.4 percent of possession in Monday's match; there was only one five-minute period where Toronto had the majority of the ball.
“At our place [the] expectation is that we'll find a little more of the ball than we did the last match,” added Vanney, anticipating a different story come the second leg on Sunday at BMO Field (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US ; TSN1/4, TVAS in Canada).
Giovinco has, however, been deadly from free kicks. He has scored two in as many games; four of his last five goals have come from such situations.
No keeper has watched as many of them as goalkeeper Alex Bono.
“After training [we] bring out the wall of mannequins and Seba asks me to go in goal,” said Bono. “Be there for him to gauge; see what the free kicks are coming in like.”
“The amount of times I've seen the same free kick, over and over again, bend over the wall and hit the back of the net,” recounted Bono. “It's painful for me at the time, but in a game situation I'm smiling at the other end of the field. He never ceases to amaze me.”
While there is a clear preference for going over the wall, as he did against Montreal, Atlanta, and New York, Bono noted: “He's also shown that he can punish 'keepers that cheat.”
“That's something I told him: the more you score, the more guys are going to cheat and try to get to that ball over the wall,” continued Bono. “All it takes is one free kick, to put it back the other way to the 'keeper side, and for him to never cheat like that again.”
Vanney had some advice for opposition teams tasked with defending Giovinco's set piece prowess.
“Not foul in unnecessary moments is a starting point,” joked Vanney.
On Monday, New York's Jesse Marsch tried a different tack, plotting to drop Michael Murillo back behind the wall onto the goal line at the last minute, taking away Giovinco's window. Had the defender arrived in time, he may have cleared it. He did not.
“We've seen guys drop on the line before,” recalled Vanney. “It appeared that was the tactic, he was just a split-second late. It's not revolutionary. It's the way to try to take away as much of the goal as possible, allow your goalkeeper to cover the back post and have a player drop in to cover the near post.”
“It just so happened that Seba got it up and down fast enough that he wasn't able to recover,” explained Vanney. “[Giovinco] has proven to have a knack for finishing free kicks in opportune times.”
Though they all know it's coming, stopping it is easier said than done.
“At this point everyone knows what he's got in the bag,” admitted Bono. “The fact that over and over again people can't find an answer... it's special.”