Italy coach Giampiero Ventura refuses to call up MLS and Toronto FC’s star player, Sebastian Giovinco, because in his view “he plays in a league that doesn’t matter much.”
His words were another body blow for Major League Soccer, but it’s a league which likes to roll with the punches.
It reflected the views of his predecessor Antonio Conte, who said “It’s normal that if you choose to go and play there [MLS] then you can pay the consequences in footballing terms.”
The Italian national side would be better with Giovinco in it, or at least in the squad, but on the evidence of last night’s play-off game between Toronto and Montreal Impact, Ventura would have every right to stick to his view.
For a start, it wasn’t Giovinco’s best game in a Toronto shirt. He struggled to make an impact against, erm, the Impact, on the synthetic turf of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
The game had been moved there from Montreal’s usual home at the Saputo Stadium in order to avoid any adverse weather conditions, and to fit more fans in for this eagerly anticipated MLS Cup semi-final first leg.
These artificial pitches are renowned for evening things up, and can often prevent flair players like Giovinco from strutting their stuff.
MLS faces an ongoing battle to convince doubters like Ventura that the league should be taken seriously, and that the football played is of a high standard, but pitches like this don’t help their cause.
Montreal ‘keeper Evan Bush commented: “There are certain areas where it’s hard and there’s concrete underneath, and certain areas are hollow. I’m not sure if there are trap doors under there or what.”
To make things worse, as kick-off approached the referee pointed out that the the 18-yard boxes were only 16 yards wide. Kick-off was delayed while the graffiti artists covered up the incorrect lines with green paint and the proper dimensions were measured out.
This sort of mistake in such a big, high profile semi-final between two rivals doesn’t do MLS any favours.
Maybe it was all part of the home side’s plan. Toronto were caught cold and found themselves two goals down with less than 15-minutes gone.
The impressive Patrice Bernier played an incisive first time ball for former Toronto forward Dominic Oduro to open the scoring after just 10 minutes. It was a cool but swift finish from Oduro, and it left the opposition rearguard stunned.
The second came just two minutes later when a poor clearing header from Steven Beitashour landed at the feet of Oduro. The Ghanaian quickly sprayed a ball left to Ignacio Piatti whose low cross skidded across the plastic grass into the path of the onrushing Matteo Mancosu. The Italian striker was alert, dashing onto the ball in front of a dosing group of defenders to score past Clint Irwin.
Toronto boasted the second best defence in MLS during the regular season, but they were disorganised and out of sorts here as the Impact attack sliced through them with ease.
What MLS sometimes lacks in quality, it can often make up for in entertainment. Within ten minutes of the second half starting, Montreal were 3-0 up through Ambroise Oyongo and the tie looked all but over, even with a second leg to come in Toronto next week.
Michael Bradley’s “pass it to Giovinco” ploy wasn’t working, and coach Greg Vanney looked flummoxed on the visitors’ bench. He sent on Tosaint Ricketts and Will Johnson to change the dynamic somewhat, but the flow of the game remained similar.
But somehow, the goal came. If anything it looked like the home side would add a fourth, but instead an unmarked Jozy Altidore got on the end of Giovinco’s dinked cross following a period of pinball in the 16… sorry, 18 yard box.
Montreal began to peter out. Apprehension rippled around the Olympic stadium, and even the introduction of Didier Drogba couldn’t stem it.
The game was still scrappy, but its frenzied nature added to the entertainment as Toronto searched for more.
More came when their captain Michael Bradley, who’d had a poor game up until this point, steered a shot into the corner of the goal. It looked like Altidore may have fouled Victor Cabrera in the build-up, but Bradley kept his cool at the key moment, playing to the whistle and putting his side right back in the tie.
The game finished 3-2: a scoreline which means a 1-0 win at home next week would see Toronto through to the final.
On the small chance that Ventura was sat at home watching this game he will have been entertained, but the game — and the pre-match pitch marking farce — will have done little to change his views on the league.
MLS will continue to roll with the punches, but at some stage it might need to retreat to its corner and have a word with the other entities involved in US Soccer to decide on a better way forward.