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Sebastian Giovinco: The Atomic Ant who became a 6ix soccer king


January 30, 2019.

It's a day of mourning for all Toronto FC fans.

After four seasons, 142 appearances, 83 goals, and several trophies later, Sebastian Giovinco said goodbye to Toronto FC. The Italian moved east to Al-Hilal on a three-year deal believed to worth over $10 million per season.

Giovinco's transfer to the Saudi club marks the end of an unforgettable era for Toronto FC, one which saw the side reach two MLS Cup finals and a CONCACAF Champions League final. Giovinco departs the club as TFC's record goalscorer, the MLS' record free kick scorer, and the fastest player to reach 100 combined league goals and assists.

And to think of where the club was at prior to his arrival.

Pre-2015, Toronto FC was synonymous with heartache. From broken promises to sustained sorrow. From an incompetent management group to players not living up to their billing. From an 0-9-0 start in 2012, to eight straight seasons without a playoff appearance, to Jermain Defoe ditching the club just over a year after he was signed as TFC's new franchise player. As one of the side's own players put it in 2012, Toronto FC was "the worst team in the world," and it looked like the club was forever destined to be the league's doormat.

Then came Giovinco.

Over the next four seasons, the man nicknamed the "Atomic Ant" transformed the club in a way TFC had never seen before. In his first season, he scored 22 goals and 16 assists in 33 MLS games, breaking the league record for the most goals and assists recorded in a single season. He added the MLS Golden Boot, the MLS Newcomer of the Year Award, and the MLS MVP Award to his trophy cabinet. Most importantly, he scored the goal that clinched Toronto FC's first ever playoff berth.

In his second season, Giovinco added another 17 league goals and 15 league assists, becoming the first player in MLS history with back-to-back seasons of 30+ combined goals and assists. He also won his first piece of silverware with the club (the 2016 Voyageurs Cup) and fired them to the 2016 MLS Cup final, helping Toronto FC become the first Canadian club to compete in the playoff finale. Along the way, he recorded four goals and four assists in six playoff games.

2017 would be Giovinco's most successful season, from a team-standpoint. Despite his stats taking a dip (he only recorded 15 goals and six assists in 25 regular season games), the Atomic Ant scored six free kicks, setting the record for the most scored in a single MLS season. He also played an influential role in TFC's attacking trifecta, which included Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez. Through this trio, Toronto FC clinched every trophy they played for that season. They won the Voyageurs Cup for the second year in a row, clinched the Supporters' Shield as the best team in the regular season with a then-record point total, and went all the way to the MLS Cup final again, this time coming out victorious. Giovinco assisted Jozy Alitidore's winner.

In his final season, Giovinco again put up double-digits in league goals and assists (13 and 15), and although Toronto FC failed to qualify to the playoffs for the first time in Seba's MLS career, his four goals saw the Reds go within a hair of winning the CONCACAF Champions League after squeezing by tournament favourites Tigres and Club America.

To say that the club has come a long way during Giovinco's time would be an understatement.

The MLS as a whole also benefited from Giovinco's brilliance. Unlike previous marquee MLS signings like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Alessandro Nesta, Seba wasn't there to play out the final years of his career. Rather, he served a bigger purpose.

Giovinco joined Toronto FC as a dynamic footballer who was still in the prime of his career. He was just short of celebrating his 28th birthday, had made over 80 appearances with Juventus in his last three seasons, was still receiving call-ups to the Italian national team, and had offers from other European clubs, including Tottenham and Arsenal. Yet Giovinco decided that a move to Toronto FC, a then-failing club, was his best option.

For the MLS—a league that was desperately trying to shed its "retirement home" tag—Giovinco was a godsend. Seba wasn't here to solely collect a lucrative paycheck or just be a famous name on the back of a shirt. Seba was here to revolutionize Toronto FC and prove that he's still a player with exceptional skill and quality. He was exactly the type of world-recognized, if not world-renowned, talent the MLS needed to silence its doubters and encourage other potential signees in similar circumstances to join. Giovinco added a level of credibility to the MLS, and one could argue that, bar David Beckham and his impact on the Designated Player Rule, Giovinco's signing is the most important transfer in MLS history.

Giovinco's impact on the perception of soccer in Toronto should also be mentioned. Through Seba, Toronto FC made a name for itself in a city suffocated by other sports franchises.

As the sports capital of Canada, Toronto boasts teams in three of the top four major North American sports leagues. The 102-year old Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team is the second-oldest and second-most successful side in the NHL, while the MLB's 42-year old Toronto Blue Jays and the NBA's 24-year old Toronto Raptors remain Canada's only teams in those leagues. Each of the "Big Three" had seen some level of prosperity, be it through division titles or championships, and featured some of their league's best ever players, past and present.

Toronto FC, upon Giovinco's arrival, had none of that. They didn't have much history (the club was only about eight-years old when Giovinco made his debut), they had no considerable success to build off of, and none of their previous star players had enough value to contend with some of the city's other big name athletes.

Unlike most footballers who have the privilege of joining clubs where football is king, Giovinco was at a team where nothing was given on a silver platter. Sure, his signing was seen as big news among the city's soccer fans, who knew of his exploits in the Serie A. But respect and admiration wasn't so easily handed out. It had to be earned, with every goal, every assist, every win, and every trophy. It was only during the latter parts of his four seasons that Toronto FC was finally held in some esteem.

While some international viewers may not give Giovinco's time at Toronto much thought, it can be argued that the little Italian's influence on Toronto FC and the MLS is bigger than anyone could've ever achieved.

Giovinco, as the mesmerizing game-changer the Reds splashed $7 million a season for, fashioned Toronto FC into title contenders, both nationally and continentally. Giovinco, as the first real prime international star to join the league, raised the international profile of the MLS and set the foundation for future quality footballers to view the league as a respectable career path to take. Giovinco, as the well-recognized winner that he is, raised the standard of TFC in the eyes of neutral Toronto sports fans and brought some much needed media attention to a side accustomed to getting the bare minimum.

Without a doubt, Sebastian Giovinco has left his mark as both a Toronto FC and Major League Soccer legend.