Sounders FC

In big moments, it could be the ‘small’ stars who determine MLS Cup victor

Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco (10) gets past Montreal Impact defender Ambroise Oyongo during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship on Nov. 30. Giovinco leads Toronto against Seattle in the MLS Cup on Saturday.
Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco (10) gets past Montreal Impact defender Ambroise Oyongo during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship on Nov. 30. Giovinco leads Toronto against Seattle in the MLS Cup on Saturday. The Associated Press

When in doubt, look for No. 10.

On both sides.

Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco and Seattle Sounders FC’s Nicolas Lodeiro are not big in stature or personality. But they carry an enormous game-changing reputation into the 21st MLS Cup on Saturday (5 p.m., Ch. 13) at BMO Field in Toronto.

And how these two create offense — their own or for others — is key to which team will win its first MLS championship.

“One of the interesting storylines to this match is Nico and Giovinco and their value to their respective teams,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said.

“Defenders have to be on their toes. Nico makes sharp, quick turns. Giovinco does the same. They’re a little different, though. Giovinco is a scorer. Nico has scored his fair share of goals, but Nico can put in those final passes.”

All Giovinco, 29, has done is wow observers in his first two years in the MLS. In 2015, the Italian forward set a league record for most combined goals and assists (38) to win the league’s MVP award. This season, he followed that up by scoring 17 goals and recording 15 assists for the Reds.

Some pundits consider him the best player in his prime to ever play in North America.

Lodeiro has been on the MLS scene since July but has quickly gained recognition as a top playmaking midfielder. He led the Sounders’ turnaround from ninth place in the Western Conference to the No. 4 seed by recording four goals and eight assists in just 13 games.

In these MLS playoffs, each has scored four goals in five matches. That’s big production from pint-sized players. Lodeiro is 5-foot-7, 150 pounds; Giovinco is smaller at 5-4, 130.

“They’re both top players, and they see the game differently than most,” Sounders defender Brad Evans said. “They are deadly in small spaces. And they pop up in different parts of the field. That makes it difficult (to defend them).

“(Giovinco) has the freedom ... to float wherever he wants to create (two-on-ones) or (three-on-twos). It is a good system. But this is also a good system for Nico. You play to the strengths of your best players, and I think both teams do that.”

Giovinco developed in the academy of Italian powerhouse Juventus, playing for its top professional squad on three separate occasions before signing what was then the richest MLS contract (five-year, $35.8 million) with Toronto FC in 2015.

He arrived in Greg Vanney’s first full season as the club’s coach. Even now, Vanney is amazed at Giovinco’s skills.

“Sometimes in training, we catch ourselves laughing at some of the things he pulls off,” Vanney said. “He pulls them off in a way that looks so simple. And for the guys who have been around the team for a long time ... they go, ‘It’s not quite that simple.’ Everybody, for sure, appreciates the things he’s capable of doing from a technical aspect.”

Giovinco applies constant pressure on defense with his unrivaled foot skill and acceleration to move around and past defenders.

“He is so quick and small, it is tough to keep him in front of you,” said Seattle defender Chad Marshall, noting that the times you get in Giovinco’s way, he bounces off the contact and constantly draws fouls.

“It is going to have to be a team effort to deal with him.”

Lodeiro was asked earlier this week if he saw any fair comparison between himself and his Toronto TC counterpart.

“We are completely different players,” Lodeiro said. “The only thing we are alike is we are short in stature.”

“I like the way (Giovinco) faces up on defenders,” he continued. “He brings (the ball) up and faces them without any fear.”

That’s similar in fashion to what Lodeiro has shown during his brief time in the MLS after nearly two seasons with Boca Juniors in Argentina.

“Technically, they both are very good players,” Vanney said. “Are their skill sets the same? Not exactly. But I do think there is some crossover between what each of them is capable of doing.”

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