TORONTO – In signing five-foot-four Italian playmaker Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus, Toronto FC has once again raised the bar for Major League Soccer.
But given Toronto’s eight-year history of failure on the pitch, luring a European star in his prime to North America won’t mean much unless the rich kid on the MLS block can finally win on the field and make the playoffs.
The 27-year-old Giovinco, nicknamed the Atomic Ant, will join Toronto in July after his contract with Italy’s Juventus expires.
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While Toronto opted to forgo props to highlight the Giovinco acquisition — unlike the double-decker bus parked outside the unveiling last January of now-departed England striker Jermain Defoe — Toronto general manager Tim Bezbatchenko was talking big about the little Italian.
He called the Giovinco signing a “historic moment” and “turning point” for the league.
“This is a moment in time for Major League Soccer where we have never gotten a player, that I can remember, from a top team in a top league who’s willing to come over aged 27. It just hasn’t happened yet,” Bezbatchenko told a news conference Monday.
U.S. internationals like Toronto star midfielder Michael Bradley have returned to MLS in their prime. But import stars have tended to come over in their autumn years, although there has been a trend of late to up-and-coming international players coming to MLS.
Giovinco is an established Italian international with 21 caps, albeit one who has struggled to find his niche at times at Juventus.
Part of the attraction of Toronto for the 130-pound attacking midfielder is he goes from being a piece of the puzzle to marque man.
Toronto is still smarting from its experience with Defoe, who scored goals when healthy in 2014 but then was sidetracked by injury and a desire to go home. He was shipped to Sunderland last week in a swap that brought U.S. international forward Jozy Altidore the other way.
“I think it’s important that you learn from the past and this time we’re meeting halfway with the player,” said Bezbatchenko. “He’s just as excited as we are to be with this club.”
Toronto’s promise of finally making the playoffs ended in another early exit in 2014 with an 11-15-8 record. But Bezbatchenko said that while Defoe’s stint in Toronto was just one season, it turned heads.
“I think what this organization has done in the past year has put the league on the map. Right or wrong, Jermain Defoe helped put this club and the entire league on the map. And I think people sort of took notice. Including players in Spain and France and Russia, in Italy.
“I’m getting calls regularly from players I never thought would be possible a few years ago when I was working at the league office.”
Still, head coach Greg Vanney said he was a “little bit” surprised that Toronto had landed the Italian.
Off the field, Giovinco offers Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment a chance to connect with the sizable Italian community in Toronto.
“So far today we’ve sold and renewed almost another thousand season seats,” said Dave Hopkinson, MLSE’s chief commercial officer.
Toronto ranked second only to Seattle in MLS average attendance last season despite its poor record. The franchise will have more time to drum up ticket sales given the team won’t play at home until May 10 due to ongoing renovations that will expand seating capacity at BMO Field to 30,000.
Toronto beat out a string of marquee clubs — Arsenal, Liverpool, Monaco and Tottenham were just some of the names linked to him — to land the diminutive Italian. Because of the Italian’s expiring contract, Toronto did not have to pay a transfer fee but given the competition likely had to pay through the nose in terms of wages.
While the league’s collective bargaining agreement is due for renegotiation, the acquisition of Giovinco adds another have to a league full of have-nots.
Bradley and Defoe each made more than US$6 million last season. Giovinco is likely to earn even more on a team where seven players made less than $50,000 in 2014.
Giovinco will join Bradley and Altidore as designated players, the majority of whose salaries fall outside the salary cap. With only three DPs currently allowed, that means Brazilian striker Gilberto as the odd man out unless the league revamps its designated player rules.
Bezbatchenko sidestepped the issue of Gilberto’s future, saying the team has time to figure out the roster.
The Toronto braintrust made a point of saying the success of the team will come from its depth and not its star power.
Giovinco gives Toronto a creative midfielder who can set other players up but can also score himself, according to Vanney.
“We had a very, very short list of players who fit that mould and this guy was right at the top of them,” said the coach.
Toronto had been watching Giovinco for some time.
“Our scouts came away (from watching him live) going ‘That’s a great idea but there’s no way we’re getting anywhere near this guy,’” said Vanney.
Toronto reached out to the Giovinco camp and heard back several weeks later that he was indeed interested. Negotiations followed quickly with Giovinco’s representatives coming to Toronto and Bezbatchenko visiting Turin.
“We were all pinching ourselves in the end to make sure that this was real,” Vanney said.
Vanney said he envisions Giovinco playing behind Altidore as a second forward or attacking midfielder.
“He is outstanding at taking players one on one, eliminating the first defender, looking at combining off people and getting himself into areas on the field that very few players can really get into in and around the (penalty) box.
“He’s incredibly quick. He will be a nightmare for opposing defences,’ added Vanney, a former defender himself. “I think he’ll draw attention that will allow other players to free themselves up.”
Giovinco is also a threat at set pieces.
Giovinco, who remains in Italy, made a short appearance via a taped video message during the news conference at the Air Canada Centre.
“Hello Toronto and MLS,” he said in English with a grin. “I am excited to sign with Toronto FC and see you all this summer. Thank you for your support.”
He followed with a short message in Italian.
Giovinco, in his sixth season with Juventus, has 20 goals and 23 assists in 130 career appearances. He has also spent time on loan with Parma and Empoli.
Vanney says the little Italian, who has a young child with his longtime partner, comes with a big personality.
Next up for Toronto is landing Real Betis defender Damien Perquis, a 30-year-old French-born Poland international.
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