Sebastian Giovinco's struggles, and MLS All-Stars assessed

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC

When Antonio Conte omitted Sebastian Giovinco from his Italy squad for this summer’s European Championships Greg Vanney must have raised a glass in the Azzurri coach’s honour.

Sebastian Giovinco’s dip is cause for Toronto FC concern

Don Garber probably didn’t, given Conte’s accompanying comments about MLS, but Giovinco’s absence in France this summer was seen to be to the benefit of Toronto FC. That was the assumption, anyway.

But with Euro 2016 now over and TFC a number of games down the line since Conte’s decision not to pick Giovinco, the benefit of having the Italian playmaker available for the early part of the summer no long seems so clean cut. Toronto FC turned in a “nice solid performance,” as Vanney put it, in the 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday, but it marked another substandard display from Giovinco. His slump continues.

Indeed, the Atomic Ant hasn’t been so atomic of late. He has now gone seven league games without finding the net, despite firing off an astonishing 13 shots on goal against Chicago on Saturday. He struck the post, he forced a reaction save from Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, he threatened throughout but couldn’t break his barren run in front of goal.

Why isn’t it happening for Giovinco right now? The man himself doesn’t have much of an explanation, shrugging “I don’t know” when asked to shed some light on his dip. “Just keep trying,” Vanney offered as encouragement, underlining just how baffling Giovinco’s recent drought is. It’s not as if he has struggled to create goalscoring opportunities. As Saturday’s game against Chicago demonstrated, they’re still coming his way. It’s just that he’s not taking them.

“It’s about calibrating the spots he wants to hit. We know it will come because we’ve seen it before,” Vanney elaborated when pressed further. “We know what he’s capable of, it’s just a little bit off right now. He’ll find his way.”

When Giovinco isn’t in form there is cause for concern at TFC. The Italian is central to everything they do, so when he doesn’t play well neither does his team. They’re not a one-man team, as so many deride, but no side in MLS is as dependent on one man as Toronto FC are on Giovinco. With the play-offs starting to sparkle on the horizon, this slump could have a lasting impact. GR

Underrated MLS All-Stars could indicate league’s underlying strength

All fans like a good moan. They moan about refereeing decisions, transfers, even the design of kits, but most of all they moan about managers. They question their team selections, insisting that they could do a better job. Every fan can do a better job than their respective team’s manager. That theory is tested when it comes to the MLS All-Star game.

The Fan XI was announced on Saturday, with Kaka, Giovani dos Santos, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba and David Villa all making the lineup. That the side largely consists of world-class stars should be of no surprise - that is the way of All-Star games. But there are still two Commissioner’s Picks to come, with All-Star head coach Dominic Kinnear holding veto on the fans’ picks.

So who can count on a call-up to the shiny, sparkly All-Star team for the Avaya Stadium game against Arsenal later this month? Statistically speaking, both Clint Dempsey and Diego Valeri might count themselves unfortunate should they miss out, with the two players among the most consistently productive in the league (averaging 3.9 and 3.8 shots on goal per game respectively) in an attacking sense.

Defensively, Victor Carbrera and Raul Rodriguez should perhaps make a habit of checking their email inbox over the next week, with the duo statistically the most prolific interceptors in MLS this season. If the best tacklers are to be represented in San Jose on 28 July, maybe Cristian Higuita or Marcelo Sarvas (both 4.1 tacklers per game) will make Kinnear’s team?

There’s a case to be made that RJ Allen warrants a place on the roster considering his performances for Eastern Conference table-toppers New York City FC over the past few weeks and months. His exertions at right-back don’t always draw the acclaim they should, but if the All-Star team is really a reflection of MLS’s best players in any given season (which it rarely is) Allen at least deserves consideration.

Matt Hedges also merits recognition, with the Rochester native’s record of seven shutouts in just 13 outings this season highlighting just how dependent FC Dallas are on him. Of course, the 26-year-old missed a number of games through injury earlier in the campaign, narrowing his chances of making the team, but on the basis of his form since returning Hedges should be in Kinnear’s thinking.

Whoever makes it into the All-Star team to face Arsenal, the current strength of the league will be reflected. Debate over the general quality of MLS and whether it is improving or declining is divisive, but the depth of this All-Star squad suggests the former to be the case. It is the potential inclusion of undervalued stars like Allen and Hedges that could provide a better gauge of strength, though. GR

Red Bulls feel the absence of Lloyd Sam

You couldn’t help but feel something was missing at Red Bull Arena on Sunday night. It wasn’t just the lack of goals or the team’s general lack of identity.

It was Lloyd Sam.

To the shock of most fans, the English winger was traded to rival DC United in exchange for allocation money earlier in the week, putting an abrupt end to his fifth season with the Red Bulls. His loss, however, finally made room for the team’s multimillion dollar investment Gonzalo Veron to make his mark on the team.

New York accommodated their attack for Veron. They went from a three-man front to a dual striker formation. They allowed Veron freedom in attack as well.

However, through 70 minutes of play, the Argentinian looked unsettled. Veron was playing his own tune on Sunday night – a heavy metal, slash and burn style that clashed with the Red Bulls’ classical symphony. Sure, he made some intelligent runs and created a pair of scoring opportunities. However, there was a clear disconnect in the attack with the former San Lorenzo forward in the mix.

That didn’t change much with the insertion of Alex Muyl. The 20-year-old homegrown product played a more defined role than Veron, sticking to his wing assignment while playing a bit part in the Red Bulls’ press. That understanding led to the best attacking opportunities of the evening for New York.

Still, the breakthrough wasn’t there, and one would be remiss to wonder how different results could have gone with the more experienced Sam on the evening. Despite his slight build, Sam’s shadow cast large on the Red Bulls after the match, with several players praising their former team-mate – and lamenting his departure.

“Lloyd is one of my favorite players ever to play with,” good friend and team-mate Bradley Wright-Phillips said following New York’s scoreless draw with Portland. “He is so creative. DC are lucky to have him. Hopefully, we don’t miss him too much.”

“It’s difficult for everyone that he is gone because he was a great personality and player,” Mike Grella added. “But this happens in this business all the time and we need to flip the page.”

Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch acknowledged that the team was, perhaps, suffering from a bit of a Sam-hangover. However, he reiterated his stance that the team would find their form in his absence.

“It may take some time,” he said. “I’ve said publicly, I really liked my relationship with Lloyd. He is a great personality and a guy that served this club in a big way. I think the group understands why the move was made and now it’s up to us to take it forward from here.” DM

Tim Howard could be the final piece in the Colorado Rapids MLS Cup puzzle

Having kept a clean sheet on his Colorado Rapids debut the previous week, Tim Howard was surely disappointed to conceded twice in Vancouver on Saturday evening. But one astonishing save made by the US international, scrambling to his near post to sensationally deny Christian Bolanos from close range, demonstrated just how significant his signing could be for Pablo Mastroeni’s side.

The Rapids were already one of 2016’s most surprising surprise packages before Howard’s arrival this summer, topping the Western Conference early on and achieving the kind of turnaround in form that looked well beyond them last season. Colorado under Mastroeni are now hard to beat, mentally tough and extremely consistent - they are essentially everything they weren’t in 2015.

And now they have Howard. On the face of the result itself, a 2-2 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps doesn’t immediately illustrate why the addition of the former Everton goalkeeper could turn the Colorado Rapids into genuine contenders. But the manner of how the away point was achieved certainly does, twice coming from behind even after the dismissal of Eric Miller. Axel Sjoberg’s stoppage-time equaliser was the work of a team that just won’t go away.

They wouldn’t have been in a position to come back were it not for the saves of Howard. The point kept them within touching distance of FC Dallas at the top of the Western Conference, with Mastreoni’s side holding two games in-hand over their Texan counterparts. Fundamentally, a single point doesn’t do much to change Colorado’s position in the table, but it does preserve the Rapids’ winning – or rather, not losing – mentality. It maintains the tone of their season so far, and that’s important.

It’s not just Howard’s saves and quality as a shot-stopper that bolster Colorado either, but his presence as a leader. Mastroeni recognised over the off-season how his side were short of top-level experience and thus added two veteran US internationals to his squad. Jermaine Jones’ influence has been minimised by injury, but Howard is already starting to impose his personality on his new team. GR

The past comes back to haunt Columbus Crew

Kei Kamara waited three long months for a chance at revenge – and on Saturday evening, he made the most of it.

In his first match against his former club, Columbus, Kamara not only scored, but assisted a Crew own goal in a 3-1 New England Revolution victory at Gillette Stadium.

“It’s not a game that I thought was ever going to happen,” Kamara said after the match. “You know, when I was part of that team, I just saw myself there and the only time that I saw myself playing against those guys was when we did scrimmage at training.”

Clearly, that is not the way things turned out. A very public tête-à-tête with Crew playmaker Federico Higuain all but punched Kamara’s ticket to New England. In the three months that followed, Kamara has struggled to find his place in Jay Heap’s lineup. In fact, he went scoreless in his first five matches, managing just seven shots on target.

But following his goal against the New York Cosmos in US Open Cup action, Kamara has settled into the Revolution line-up, scoring three goals in his last three regular season encounters – and four goals through all competitions since 29 June.

He was involved in several dangerous moments for the Revolution on Saturday night. Kamara’s pressure led to New England’s second goal – an own goal assisted by Kamara to his one-time distributor, Wil Trapp. He even smacked the crossbar in one nervy occasion with a hunger for goal that was palatable.

Still, he was not as clinical as he would have liked amidst a plethora of chances. “Yeah, I can’t lie: as a forward I want to score, and playing against your old team you want to score,” Kamara explained. “But when I had that one chance that I hit, got blocked, hit, got blocked, and went off the crossbar. Then I said, ‘You know, forget it; let’s just try to get this win.’ So, I tried to forget it but it happened: another one came in front of me.”

When his opportunity finally arose, it was as unexpected as Kamara’s move to New England. With Teal Bunbury knocked off of the ball in the box, several Revolution players began their calls for a penalty. But play went on, and as the Columbus players stood still, awaiting a penalty that would never come, Kamara slammed the his chance past Steve Clark to put the match out of reach – and to finally cash in some payback.

“That’s the game,” he said. “You’re going to keep getting chances. The same chances are going to happen over and over and I was just happy to be there at the right time.” DM

Powered by article was written by Graham Ruthven and Dave Martinez, for on Monday 11th July 2016 12.00 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch