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Club Teams MLS

MLS Championship Preview – Sounders Repeat or TFC Revenge?

With the ultimate MLS prize within grasping distance and the 2017 MLS championship game only a short distance away, it’s time to delve into which club seems poised to end the season as the king of MLS soccer and add a star above their crest. This repeat of the 2016 MLS championship is an incredibly difficult call on which side will be able to lift the trophy this time around but we’re more than okay with being wrong (or bragging about when we’re right), so we’re going to give it a go.

Will the Sounders add their second star? Will Toronto make their star-power pay and get their revenge for last season’s finale loss?

MLS finals

The biggest storyline heading into the ultimate MLS fixture has to be the health of Jozy Altidore. Scoring the lone goal against the Crew over two legs (incidentally, Altidore was only working with one good leg), the American striker is showing that he has quite a bit to prove after recent USMNT failures. Add in the marketing fact that the American striker is looking to ensure that Puma see their newest acquisition as a worthwhile piece, and Mr. Altidore has everything to prove in the Championship though the main question is, will he be there?

The rest of Toronto will be moving forward believing that they can succeed with or without their target man. If there’s ever an attacker that can pull magic out of a hat, it’s certainly TFC’s Sebastian Giovinco. If the Italian is in the mood, he tends to be the best player involved. Outside of the magical Azzurri, Michael Bradley continues to show that he can put in good shifts when he isn’t expected to be some type of midfield fairy. It’s worth noting that the US captain is also suffering USMNT fallout syndrome along with Altidore but if he can prove himself here and use this to catapult himself forward, there might be a spot for him when the USMNT starts to piece itself back together. Altidore and Bradley have truly fallen back into the audition stage of their USMNT careers and so far they seem to be relishing the role.

MLS finals

Seattle will not be an easy team to handle, no matter what Bradley, Altidore, Giovinco, and TFC have planned. Proving that they’re peaking at the right time and the most capable goal-scoring team in the playoffs, there’s a million cliches to say about “momentum”, and Seattle has just that – momentum. Clint Dempsey and Seattle would love to have one star more than their Portland rivals, and it won’t matter to them in the slightest that this is a repeat fixture. No team has phased them in the playoffs and TFC won’t have any type of intimidation factor against Seattle. Jordan Morris is in the same world as Bradley/Altidore when it comes to the future of the USMNT, and he is constantly playing against a world of fans angered at his choice to stay in the MLS.

Very quietly, and perhaps the most overlooked stat of the playoffs (considering Seattle’s attacking talent), the Sounders have kept a clean sheet throughout the playoffs. Considering that’s four games in playoff situations that are anything but stable, it might be the factor that sees a repeat hold off the revenge. If Seattle captain Alonso (perhaps their most underrated and consistent piece for the better part of a decade) is healthy and Roman Torres continues to be a top 3 defender in the MLS (yeah, I said it) then TFC is going to have a hard time finding the back of the net (hint: it’s tough to win without scoring).

We’re going to call the scoreline whether Altidore is healthy or not. The weather and fan-base of TFC hosting this game might hurt 95% of opposition MLS squads but Seattle won’t be phased (they play in Cascadia stadiums all season long, they don’t get flustered by fans) and temperatures will hinder both teams a bit. However, no squad has proven that they can handle a moment of Giovinco magic and he’s looking for silverware before a World Cup year.

Final score:

Toronto – 2
Seattle – 2

Seattle wins on penalties as Altidore skies one into the stratosphere and Dempsey converts to cement his Seattle legacy.

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MLS

Stefan Frei Saves Seattle in MLS Cup

Saturday night, the 2016 MLS Season finally came to a close in Toronto. This was the first MLS Cup Final that featured two non-founding clubs: the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. Neither of these two sides had ever taken home the league crown, and fans at BMO Field had to be optimistic that Sebastian Giovinco and Co. could finally lead them to the promised land. Would it be a night to remember north of the border, or could the Sounders spoil the party and cap off their date with destiny?

In the opening 45 minutes of play, Toronto looked the more likely of the sides to score. Just two minutes in, Jozy Altidore dragged his shot just inches wide of the far post. Greg Vanney’s side, despite their attacking dominance, struggled to turn their shots on target into any meaningful chances.

Other than Altidore’s close call to open the match, Toronto’s only other real look at goal came in the 15th minute from the foot of Jonathan Osorio. Altidore did well to hold his defender in the penalty area before laying off a teasing ball to Osorio. Unfortunately for TFC fans, the 24-year-old couldn’t quite the ball of his feet and his shot was easily gathered by Stefan Frei.

While Toronto may have been frustrated by their lack of clear-cut chances, they would’ve been thrilled at how quiet Seattle had been in the final third. Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro struggled to break down TFC’s defensive unit, and Clint Irwin had little to no work to do through the first half. The keeper’s biggest challenge was probably just staying warm in the cold Canadian night.

Three minutes into the second half, Toronto had another great chance to take a deserved lead. Gritty play from Altidore and Osorio won TFC possession back just outside Seattle’s penalty area. Osorio quickly found a wide-open Giovinco streaking into the box, but the Italian’s shot sailed just wide of the near post.

The match’s next big chance came all the way in the 92nd minute as both sides struggled to test the opposition’s keeper. A corner from Michael Bradley found the head of Nick Hagglund 12 yards from net. Hagglund’s header turned into a pass as it drifted towards Altidore at the far post. The American striker wasn’t quick enough, however, as Frei did just enough to push the ball away from danger and force the match into extra time.

Seattle Sounders keeper Stefan Frei in MLS Cup

The moment of the match, and arguably the season came in the 108th minute. Tosaint Ricketts hung a cross up towards Altidore from the right wing. Altidore sent a looping header over Frei for what looked like a championship winning goal. Somehow, the Seattle and former TFC net-minder reached back and clawed the ball out of the air right as it was about to cross the goal line.

It was going to take penalties to determine this year’s champions.

Missed penalties from Michael Bradley and Álvaro Fernández sent the shootout into the sixth round deadlocked at 4-4. Justin Morrow stepped up for TFC and smacked his shot off the crossbar. Now, all Seattle needed was a goal from Román Torres to steal the title. The Panamanian defender delivered just that sending Irwin the wrong way to seal a 5-4 shootout victory and Seattle’s first ever MLS Cup.

On paper, there’s no way that Seattle should’ve won this match. They were thoroughly outplayed in the offensive third and they didn’t even register a single shot on goal through 120 minutes of play. But in the end, that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that they did enough to squeeze by and win. Congratulations to both sides on fantastic seasons, and a special congratulations to Seattle and their amazing fan base on a historic title.

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MLS

Who Will Take the MLS Crown?

Well, we’re finally at the end. The 2016 MLS Season will come to its dramatic conclusion Saturday night in Toronto. Representing the Western Conference, we have a resilient Seattle Sounders side that overcame an abysmal start and the absence of several key players to make it through the playoff gauntlet. For the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC will be trying to do what Columbus couldn’t last season, and give the home fans a piece of silverware to celebrate. No matter who wins, the MLS Cup will go to a brand new home. Which side will seize the opportunity and secure a first ever league triumph?

Like I said in my other piece about the Sounders, the players to focus on have to be Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro. These two have combined for seven goals already in the playoffs, with Lodeiro scoring in all but one postseason match. Outside of these two, only one player, Nelson Valdez (2), could find the back of the net. While it has to be exciting as a Seattle fan to see Morris and Lodeiro tearing it up, they have to be concerned about their lack of attacking depth. If Toronto can somehow shut these two down, Seattle hasn’t really had a player that has proven he can step up and take on the pressure.

While it’s easy to focus on the attacking influences for the Sounders, one player on the other end that I want to highlight is Roman Torres. The Panamian defender jumped on to the radar for some MLS fans during his barnstorming performances during the 2015 Gold Cup, and his arrival at CenturyLink Field had fans in the northwest excited for good reason. Coming in at a towering 6’2” and nearly 200lbs (according to ESPNFC), the 30-year-old centerback provides the Sounders with an intimidating presence at the heart of defense. Going up against Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, Torres and the rest of the Sounders defense will have to be on their toes throughout the match. One stat that may provide some optimism for Sounders fans is that when Torres starts, only two teams have managed to score more than once against Seattle.

Toronto's Jozy Altidore scores in MLS playoffs

Switching over to Toronto, their Conference Final fixtures against Montreal exposed a major weakness. Through those two matches, the Impact (who didn’t even start Didier Drogba) scored five times. In the first leg, Toronto found themselves down 2-0 before the 15th minute, and in the second leg they found themselves behind again before the 30-minute mark. This habit of starting slow has yet to prove a fatal flaw yet, but on such a big stage, it may finally come back to bite them. Granted, before those poor defensive displays against Montreal, Toronto had only allowed one goal in three playoff matches, but it still has to be a point of concern for Greg Vanney.

While Seattle has struggled to find goalscorers this postseason, Toronto has been absolutely spoiled for choice. Going into the finals, eight different players have found the back of the net for the Canadian club. Unsurprisingly, the two players leading that charge are Jozy Altidore (5) and Sebastian Giovinco (4). These two have formed a dream partnership with Jozy providing the strong, aerial presence and Giovinco providing the creative sparkplug that perplexes defenders with every turn. One of the few defenses that hasn’t suffered from this partnership this season is Seattle.

As much as I would love to see an American side take home the MLS crown, I think that Toronto has too much talent for Seattle to handle. Giovinco and Jozy are the most exciting duo in the league, and Vanney has had plenty of time to tighten up his defense leading into this match. Final score: Toronto 2-1 Seattle

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MLS

Who Will Meet in the MLS Eastern Conference Finals?

New York Red Bulls vs. Montreal Impact (Agg. 0-1)

Red Bulls vs. Impact in Eastern Conference Semis

In the first round of New York City team’s versus Canadian opposition, we take a look at the Red Bulls versus the Impact. The first leg saw Montreal beat New York with a highlight reel goal from Matteo Mancosu. To add insult to injury to that loss, Omer Damari received a straight red card in stoppage time; so the striker will not be available for Jesse Marsch’s side on Sunday. Can the Red Bulls turn it around, or will Montreal be one step closer to their first MLS Cup?

Starting off with Montreal, the biggest question mark for this match, and really the entire playoffs, is Didier Drogba. The Chelsea legend hasn’t appeared for the Canadian club since September 28th, and has apparently been throwing a bit of a temper tantrum in recent weeks after being named on the bench against Toronto in mid-October. Drogba has now returned to training for Montreal and pending a flare up in his back or just a coaching decision, he looks set to play at least some part in Sunday’s match. The 38-year-old scored 10 times this season, but never against the Red Bulls. Let’s see if he can silence the critics in this crucial second leg fixture.

In the first leg, the Red Bulls had no shortage of goal scoring chances. You could easily argue that they should have at least walked out of Montreal with a draw, and maybe even win. Bradley Wright-Phillips alone had several opportunities that you would have bet your house on for him to score. I think that the Red Bulls are going to continue to have a difficult time on Sunday, especially if Montreal decide to park the bus at the back. That puts the pressure on New York’s two MVP candidates, BWP and Sacha Kljestan, to unlock the defense and find at least one goal at home (they’ve only been shut out twice all season at Red Bull Arena).

Even with the potential return of Drogba to the lineup, I don’t think that Montreal can pull off another escape act in the second leg. I attribute their 1-0 win in the first leg to the Red Bulls’ inability to finish rather than they’re defensive talent. New York hasn’t been held scoreless in back-to-back matches since July and I don’t see that happening now. Final score Red Bulls 2-0 Montreal

New York City FC vs. Toronto FC (Agg. 0-2)

Now for the second round of the Big Apple versus our neighbors to the north. In the other Eastern Conference semifinal, we see Patrick Viera’s NYCFC host Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium. In their first leg matchup, the Canadians walked away with a convincing 2-0 win. Now, NYCFC must find a way to rebound or their first playoff run will come to an early end.

For Toronto, I’m not sure that there’s too much Greg Vanney needs to change going into Yankee Stadium. For the majority of the first leg, the Canadians looked like the better side as they created chance after chance in NYCFC’s final third. The players need to make sure that they keep their composure on the pitch and don’t give away any silly fouls, or take any unnecessary cards. At the end of the first leg, we saw some emotion bubble over, and Vanney argued after the game that David Villa should’ve earned a suspension for his kick on Armando Cooper. After getting a harsh snub from any individual awards from the league, Toronto look determined to take home the biggest piece of silverware and prove their doubters wrong.

Switching to Man City feeder team / NYCFC, Viera is going to really need to think about what type of team he wants to send out on Sunday. The second year club looked outclassed in the first leg, and the Frenchman drew criticism for playing a seemingly defensive lineup at BMO Field. Now, there is no room to play conservatively. In the first leg, we saw David Villa get subbed off while the game was still 0-0 despite being the team’s leading goal scorer in the regular season. Back in March, the former Barcelona striker scored twice against Toronto and that type of performance will be a necessity if NYCFC hopes to move on to the conference finals.

This match was a lot easier to predict than the other New York/Canada fixture. In my opinion, Toronto are the more complete team, and with a two-goal advantage, I don’t think NYCFC have enough left in the tank to advance. Look for Sebastian Giovinco to show the league it was dead wrong for not including him in the final three for MVP as Toronto ease into the next round. Final score NYCFC 1-2 Toronto

READ: Our MLS Western Conference Preview

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Contains Video MLS

MLS Week 2 Wrap-Up: Gio and Villa Battle to Draw

The home side dominance of Major League Soccer has begun. The only team to lose at home this week was the 2015 MLS Cup Finalist Columbus. Chris Pontius and the Philadelphia Union surprised the Crew with two goals at MAPFRE Stadium. New England hosted a scoreless draw with DC United to open their home campaign. Colorado scored AND beat LA with a Marco Pappa strike at the death. Joao Plata’s assist double lead Salt Lake over their visitors, Seattle. A cool brace by Dom Dwyer gave Sporting Kansas City 6 points to start the season. Two successive draws for Orlando City make you think they’re just waiting for Kaka to get the W’s.

Houston Dynamo 5 – FC Dallas 0

When you finish your scoring chances, soccer can be a lot of fun. The Houston Dynamo had a lot of fun against FC Dallas in the Texas Derby this weekend. Four goals inside the opening half hour gave the Dynamo control over the game.

Goals came quick and in a hurry from David Horst, Ricardo Clark, Andrew Wenger & Will Bruin tacked on a late goal as well. Houston certainly made the most of their opportunities, scoring four goals from five shots on target (not including the own goal).

The Hoops enjoyed the better of possession away from home and had plenty of time to come back into the game. Mauro Diaz had three attempts from outside the area but could not break the back line of the Dynamo for a closer attempt.

Dallas captain Matt Hedges had a night at the office to forget. The starting center back for Dallas misplayed a back pass to goalkeeper Jesse Gonzales in the 13th minute. The ball skipped past the rushing Gonzales and nestled into their net.

Former Hermann Trophy winner Andrew Wenger has to be enjoying his time in Houston so far. He equaled his 2015 season scoring and assist tallies with Philadelphia by the 27th minute. Wenger had two assists – to Horst and Clark – and cleaned up a defensive miscue by Dallas to make it 4-0.

Joe Willis still had plenty to-do to keep Dallas off the score sheet. The second year Dynamo keeper faced 6 shots on goal and made each one look easy. It was Willis’ first clean sheet in MLS since July 2013.

Owen Coyle has his first win of 2016 and first against FC Dallas. Coyle and his staff will be targeting many more to keep the Dynamo above the red line this year.

Oppositely, Oscar Pareja suffered his first career defeat to the Dynamo. In his previous four meetings against them Dallas outscored Houston 14-3.

Next week: Houston visits New York & Dallas hosts Montreal

New York City FC 2 – Toronto FC 2

David Villa vs. Toronto

David Villa scored twice in the first half at Yankee Stadium but it wasn’t enough to give New York City FC three points at home. Patrick Vieira took a chance at a back three against reining MLS MVP Giovinco and it bit him in the end.

Villa’s first goal came from the penalty spot. Marco Delgado made contact with Thomas McNamara in the goal area as he was attacking. The Spanish designated player cooly placed the penalty to the right side of Clint Irwin.

Will Johnson had a chance to score his first goal in the red of TFC but pushed his chance wide of the goal. A couple minutes later Toronto would score before halftime thanks to a set piece delivery by Giovinco. Damien Perquis found himself on the end of the cross with his central run on goal. It was his second career MLS goal.

New NYCFC center back Federic Brilliant had a good opportunity on the hour mark. TFC defense was late to react to a Pirlo corner and the Frenchman put it right into the hands of Irwin. McNamara also had an opportunity that was lost by a poor first touch in the goal area. Either chance could have changed the pace of the game in NYCFC’s favor.

Those missed chances allowed Giovinco’s 76th minute strike to draw the game at 2-2. Sebastian ran at Brilliant after picking the ball out of the midfield and put a slippery slider passed Josh Saunders. For those who are keeping track at home, that is Giovinco’s 24th goal and 18th assist in only 35 career MLS appearances.

The back three for Vieira may not have given him a clean sheet, but it seems likely that this will be the formation of choice for the new head coach at home.

Both teams remained undefeated after their opening day victories. After four games in this series, they average four goals per game. The two sides will collide again in Toronto on May 18th.

Next week: New York City hosts Orlando & Toronto visits Kansas City

Montreal Impact 3 – New York Red Bulls 0

Montreal Impact's Piatti celebrates

The Montreal Impact turned a stale first half into a three-goal decision over Supporters Shield-holder New York Red Bulls.

The Red Bulls had the better of chances through the first hour. The Impact’s Danny Toia even escaped a penalty call when he brought down Bradley Wright-Phillips in the goal area after 11 minutes, but the whistle never came.

Dominic Oduro capitalized on a midfield giveaway by Gideon Baah to opened the scoring in the 58th minute for the Impact. The goal brought the 27,500 in attendance at Olympic Stadium back into the game to spur the team on from there.

Wright-Phillips had a point-blank opportunity to bring the game equal and put his shot off of Evan Bush’s onrushing body. The Impact sprung on the counter attack following the save. Danny Toia provided the second goal to Ignacio Piatti on the open right wing of the Red Bulls. Going back to last season, Piatti now has four goals in his last four regular season games.

Montreal homegrown player Anthony Jackson-Hamel scored his first MLS goal in the final seconds of the game. Harry Shipp’s intelligent scoop into the goal area lead the young forward to goal and poked it comfortably passed Luis Robles.

Robles is eight game clean sheet-less streak. This streak has more to do with the Red Bull’s revolving backline than it does of him. Baah and Ouimette are about as inexperienced as it comes in Major League Soccer and have had little time to gel together as a partnership.

Montreal showed MLS that they do not need Didier Drogba to be successful in this league. Their form right now is comparable to their sensational run to the CONCACAF Champions League Final a year ago, which is not good for anyone who is next on the schedule.

Next week: Montreal visits Dallas & New York hosts Houston

Other scores in MLS Week 2:

Orlando City SC 1 – Chicago Fire 1

New England Revolution 0 – DC United 0

Real Salt Lake 2 – Seattle Sounders 1

Colorado Rapids 1 – LA Galaxy 0

Columbus Crew SC 1 – Philadelphia Union 2

Sporting Kansas City 2 – Vancouver Whitecaps 1

San Jose Earthquakes 2 – Portland Timbers 1

Seriously, just give it to Quincy Amarikwa. That was a goal from a visionary!

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Contains Video MLS On the Spot

On the Spot: Sebastian Giovinco

Every week at The Center Circle, we are highlighting a different player in a feature we call “On the Spot”. We’ll take a look at superstars, underrated gems, aging veterans, and young unknowns who should be known. We’ll peruse their club and international careers, taking note of their teams, statistics, and highlight reels. We’ll illuminate their strengths and weaknesses and comment on their personalities and reputations. It will be some fun. If there is anyone you want to see “On the Spot”, feel free to comment below.

Sebastian Giovinco

Toronto's Giovinco
Image: Nathan Denette/CP

The MLS has kicked off its 23rd season. One of the superstars to watch this year has to be the reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian striker dominated the league last year, and will be looking for another big season this time around.

Time in Turin

Before he was tearing it up north of the border, Giovinco was developing his trade as a member of Juventus’ youth academy. During his time with the Bianconeri’s various youth teams, the young striker became one of the club’s most promising prospects, and was playing alongside future club icon Claudio Marchisio, as well. After nearly ten years in the academy and reserves, Giovinco finally earned his debut during the 2006/07 campaign.

That year was an odd one for Juventus as they found themselves playing in the second division. The Italian giants were relegated to the Serie B due to the “Calciopoli” scandal rather than their performance results. A 20-year-old Giovinco would make three appearances at the tail end of that season, and even registered an assist on his debut against Bologna.

That season, Juve earned promotion back to Serie A. That summer, they loaned their promising striker to fellow Serie A side Empoli. Giovinco would enjoy a relatively successful time at his temporary home appearing in 35 league fixtures, scoring six goals along the way. While the 21-year-old had personal success at Empoli, the club struggled and was relegated at the conclusion of the season.

Juventus youth player Giovinco

Giovinco returned to Juventus next season with professional experience under his belt, but he still struggled to break into the first team. The young striker would have to wait until September 24th to make his Serie A debut for Juve, and it wasn’t until December that he scored his first goal (granted it was a cracking free kick). Sitting behind the likes of club legend Alessandro Del Piero, and Amauri meant that competition for a starting forward position was very stiff. The conclusion of his first full year with Juve saw Giovinco appear 19 times in the league, with only nine of those coming as starts.

The following year, the striker’s already limited playing time decreased. Giovinco would start just five games for Juve, while coming off the bench for another ten appearances. Statistically, the Italian found the net just once and assisted another one. His inability to consistently make an impact in the first team meant that Juve viewed him as a surplus player and sent him on loan for the following season.

Playing for Parma

After two forgettable seasons in Turin, Giovinco was sent on loan to Parma. The agreement between the two clubs meant that Parma had the option to buy 50 percent of Giovinco’s contract at the conclusion of the loan The 2010/11 season was far-and-wide the best campaign that Giovinco had experienced up to that point. He was a consistent starter for his new club, starting 28 of his 30 appearances. He also racked up a career-high in goals that year, finding the back of the net seven times (including a brace against Juve).

His incredibly successful first season with the club convinced Parma to exercise their purchasing clause in the loan agreement. His second year at the club was even more successful than his first as he not only led the team in goals (15), but also led them in assists. It looked like the move to Parma was just what Giovinco needed to find his scoring touch, and he finally started to show the skill that made him such a highly touted prospect in the academy.

Back to Juve

Juventus' Giovinco

Giovinco’s successful two-year stint at Parma was good enough to make Juve buy back his contract for a reported fee of €11 million. The return to his parent club saw the striker emerge as a key player for the famous black and white kit. Giovinco started 31 times for Juve between all competitions as he played a major role in the club’s domestic and European endeavors. He would wrap up that year with 11 goals and six assists as Juve claimed the league and Super Cup titles.

The good times at Juventus didn’t last much longer for Giovinco. During the 2013/14 season, he was once again relegated to a substitute role as he started just six times out of his 17 league appearances. That season also saw his form drastically decline with him finding the back of the net just three times in all competitions. Juve did win the league that year, but other than that it was a thoroughly forgettable season for him.

Turin to Toronto

Giovinco would spent just half a season more at Juve before reaching an agreement to join Toronto FC in the MLS in January. A little less than two months later, the 28-year-old was making his debut against Canadian rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps in a 3-1 victory. Three games later, the former Juventus striker scored his first goal for Toronto an equalizer against the Chicago Fire.

The Italian’s debut season stateside was nothing short of amazing. Giovinco was the most lethal striker in the lead as he scored a career-high 22 times through just 34 appearances. On top of that, he also led the league with 13 assists. Included in this incredible season were five multi-goal games including two hat tricks against New York FC and Orlando City. Despite getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, Giovinco did take home some personal silverware as he was unsurprisingly named league MVP.

International Career

After representing Italy on virtually every youth level, Sebastian Giovinco made his debut for the Italian National Team way back on February 9, 2011 against Germany. His impressive form at Parma earned him a spot in Cesare Prandelli’s 23-man squad for the 2012 Euros. Giovinco would make two appearances as a substitute that tournament as Italy finished runner-up to Spain.

The 29-year-old has also represented his homeland during the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup and he was also a member of the nation’s Confederation Cup squad in 2013. During that tournament, Giovinco would score his first ever international goal against Japan. Despite being involved in the qualifiers, the Juve academy product was not included in the final squad for the tournament, but has since been recalled as the team prepares for the 2016 Euros.

Style of Play

Giovinco has earned the nickname of “The Atomic Ant” throughout his career. His short stature (5ft. 4in.) makes the Italian anything but intimidating from a sheer physical viewpoint. However, when it comes to pure skill on the ball he can strike fear into most defenders. His quick feet and sniper’s eye for a pass make him a constant threat in the final third and also in the build-up to the attack. On top of that, the Italian has a knack for scoring inch-perfect free kicks. Right now, his skill level puts him head and shoulders above pretty much every MLS defender, and it should set him up for another outstanding season.

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MLS

The Center Circle’s 2016 MLS Predictions

As the Champions League, Premier League, and others gain a full head of steam leading up to the finish line, another league across the pond is just getting started. Yep, Major League Soccer is back and we’re psyched. This means it’s time to get to some predictions! Despite MLS’ inherent unpredictability, Collin and I decided to hazard a few guesses for the 2016 campaign. 

Western Conference Champion

La Galaxy's Dos Santos

Collin Carpio: LA Galaxy (Supporters’ Shield)

Even though the Galaxy lost some key players during the offseason (Juninho, Omar Gonzales), they were very busy in the transfer market bringing in replacements. The team has introduced European legends Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong to the lineup, as well as a pacy young winger in Emmanuel Boateng (no relation to Jerome or Kevin). These high profile additions add even more strength to arguably the most star-studded lineup in the league.

Granted, last year was thoroughly disappointing for Steven Gerrard (two goals and three assists through 14 games), but his transition year should give way to better performances. The team will rely on players like Robbie Keane, Giovani Dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes for goals, but that’s not a bad list of players to have in attack. Last year, the Galaxy struggled to a fifth place finish in the West, but I expect them to be amongst the leaders this time around.

Drew Wendt: FC Dallas (Supporters’ Shield)

This conference was really tough to pick. The Galaxy could easily cruise to the Supporters’ Shield, but they could just as easily struggle with chemistry and injuries. Obafemi Martins is a profound loss for the Sounders. Sporting KC doesn’t seem like they have enough oomph to conquer a tough West.

So I’m going with FC Dallas to repeat as regular season champs in the West. Castillo, Diaz, and Akindele is a phenomenal and youthful core and they will only get better together this year. There have been some departures, as starting keeper Dan Kennedy has been replaced by homegrown youngster Jesse Gonzalez and veteran forward Blas Perez left for Vancouver, but the talent pool in Dallas is still quite impressive.

Eastern Conference Champion

Impact forward Didier Drogba

Collin: Toronto FC

It’s hard to bet against the team with the reigning MVP. Last year, Sebastian Giovinco dominated the league with 22 goals and 13 assists. Unfortunately for Toronto fans, this incredible goal tally was only good enough to finish sixth in the conference. A major reason for the disappointing finish was the fact that Toronto had the joint-worst defense in the league; letting in 58 goals through 34 games (1.7 goals/game).

Over the offseason, ownership made some moves to improve this porous backline. The additions of league veterans like Steve Beitashour, Will Johnson and Drew Moor should help with Toronto’s defensive struggles, but I think that it will once again be the attack that carries the team’s title hopes. Look for another impressive season from Giovinco, and hopefully a good year for Jozy Altidore going into the 2016 Copa América.

Drew: Montreal Impact

I’ll go with a different Canadian club as my Eastern champ. Drogba was a revelation last season in Montreal and he should continue to produce magical moments if he stays healthy. The Impact only lost two matches in their final 11 last season, much of that due to Didier. Although they fell to the Crew in the playoffs, it really seemed like this team had the necessary ingredients for a MLS Cup run.

Those ingredients? Experience and balance. Veterans Igancio Piatti and Laurent Ciman return this season for another go-round. These two, plus Drogba, ensure a steady and accomplished presence at all areas of the field for Montreal. However, young blood helps too, so they have shrewdly brought in former Chicago Fire standout Harry Shipp to shore up the midfield (“Shipp to shore up”, say that five times fast…). I love the look of this squad; don’t be shocked if they dominate the East in 2016.

MLS Cup Winners

Collin: Seattle Sounders

When it comes to the MLS playoffs, history has shown that anything can happen. It’s not necessarily the strongest team that wins, but the team that has the most luck on the day. With that being said, I believe that the Sounders will walk away with their first ever MLS Cup. The Sounders have been a perennial playoff contender for the last several seasons, but they’ve never been able to get over the title hump.

Veterans like Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and Chad Marshall buoy the team. Obafemi Martins’ departure to China has been offset by the arrival of Jordan Morris. Last year, the Sounders suffered heartbreak at the hands of FC Dallas in the conference semifinals, but look for them to be dealing out the upsets this time around.

Drew: New York Red Bulls

It’s hard to believe the Red Bulls have never lifted the MLS Cup (much less the U.S. Open Cup). Two of the last three seasons have seen them win the Supporters’ Shield, yet they’ve only ever reached the MLS Cup final in 2008. The same team that beat them in that final, Columbus Crew, knocked them out in last season’s conference finals. So why do I think this is finally their year?

Because eventually luck goes your way if you continue to go back to the well. New York still boasts one of the best midfields in the league and habitual scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips. The only potentially damaging loss is defender Matt Miazga, but they still possess a more than capable back line. It’s actually probably better if they don’t win the Supporters’ Shield this year, considering how rarely those teams win it all. Perhaps I just doomed the Red Bulls to more playoff disappointment with this prediction, but this side’s talent and organization makes me a believer despite their history. 

Most Valuable Player

Bradley and Giovinco

Collin: Sebastian Giovinco

Few foreign players have been able to dominate the league the way that Sebastian Giovinco did last year. Giovinco, as stated earlier, led the league in goals and assists and looked nearly unstoppable in the process. I don’t think that any team has made the proper adjustments over the offseason to deal with his presence on the pitch.

With a full offseason under his belt, the 29-year-old’s partnership with Jozy Altidore should continue to grow. Toronto’s solid midfield, with the likes of Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou, has the ability to supply Giovinco with the passes necessary for goals, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he matches, or even surpasses last year’s 22-goal tally. If he can pull off another MVP-worthy season, the Italian will be the first player in league history to secure the award in back-to-back seasons.

Drew: Clint Dempsey

It’s difficult to argue against Giovinco running away with the award again, but I’ll try: The Sounders will rise and fall with Clinton Drew Dempsey this year. Now that Obafemi has followed the money to China, Dempsey becomes the focal point of a high-powered offense. Despite time he will miss playing in this summer’s Copa America, I think he may approach 20 goals this season with a bunch of assists as well.

The 33-year-old may be aging, but he could easily be a top MLS player for another 3-4 years. With his sidekick Obafemi gone, I think the MVP narrative ends up coalescing around Dempsey as long as Seattle are in playoff contention, which they will be.

Rookie of the Year

Sounders rookie Jordan Morris

Collin: Jordan Morris

The most hyped rookies going into this season has to be Jordan Morris of the Seattle Sounders. The Stanford striker’s decision to snub Wolfsburg to join the Sounders was marked as a major moment for the league, and quickly sparked a wave of excitement to see what he could do at the professional level. With the departure of Obafemi Martins to China, Morris looks to have an immediate starting spot in the Seattle lineup.

The 21-year-old is already a near-constant member of Jürgen Klinsmann’s national team lineup, and has already scored an iconic goal for the Stars and Stripes. Morris has shown promise for every team he’s suited up for, and I expect more of the same in Seattle. This international experience should soften the transition to the professional level, and should also pave the way for a Rookie of the Year season.

Drew: Jordan Morris

Well, who else? Every American soccer fan couldn’t be more excited for the debut of the Stanford standout. Morris has proven he can hang at the highest national team level, so I think he will have a fruitful rookie year with the Sounders. It will be extremely fascinating to witness how his partnership with Dempsey, the 2004 Rookie of the Year, comes together. We’re ready to be amazed, guys.

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MLS Weekend Preview: Giovinco’s Toronto Open Season vs. Red Bulls

Sebastian Giovinco, MVP candidate
Image: Tom Szczerbowski

After a couple months off, Major League Soccer returns to action this weekend. With all of the teams facing off against each other, we’re going to focus on a battle in the east between Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls. Between them, these two clubs possess two of the most potent offenses from last season. Both of them made it to the playoffs last time around, but the Red Bulls made it significantly further than their Canadian opponents. In this clash of league heavyweights, who can get their season off to a winning start?

Let’s take a look at Toronto to start. The main man to watch has to be reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco. I feel like I’ve talked about him every other time I’ve written about Toronto, but there’s a reason for that. The Italian is without a doubt the best striker in the league. Despite his small frame, he has the strength necessary to hold on to the ball, and the nose for goal that makes him a constant threat in the final third. Last year, Giovinco embarrassed the Red Bulls’ defense with this golazo; look for him to make a similar impact this time around.

As I mentioned in my MLS predictions, the weak point of Toronto’s squad is their defense. The Canadian club shared the worst defensive record in the league last year, and this poor defense was a factor in their early playoff departure. Over the offseason, Toronto brought in some veterans to bolster their porous backline with the likes of Drew Moor and Steve Beitashour added to the roster. The Red Bulls attack should provide Toronto’s rebuilt defense a good test to start the season. Will it match the quality of the offense, or will the backline continue to hinder the club’s title ambitions?

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Last season, the Red Bulls were hands down the best team in the East during the regular season. This was in large part due to their league leading attack. Jesse Marsch was lucky enough to have two double-digit goal scorers in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam. Even if those two somehow didn’t manage to find the back of the net, the Red Bulls had plenty of other players that were capable of scoring. At the conclusion of the season, 15 different players had registered a goal for the club. The early portion of the match might be the host’s best time to put the match to bed as Toronto’s new backline works for chemistry. It would be a big surprise if the Red Bulls were shutout on Sunday.

Over the offseason, the Red Bulls lost one of the league’s brightest defensive prospects when Matt Miazga made the move to Chelsea. The 20-year-old started 28 games for New York in a center back role, and was a major reason that the club finished with the best defensive record in the conference. His departure leaves room for a player from the club’s newest batch of youngsters to step in. Over the offseason, the Red Bulls signed five defensive players (four of those coming from the draft or the academy). My guess is that Gideon Baah, who was most recently playing in Helsinki, will get the nod to start alongside Ronald Zubar in the heart of the defense.

As much as I love Toronto’s attacking duo of Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, I don’t think that their defense can handle the Red Bulls’ attack. Look for a high scoring game to open the MLS season as the Red Bulls outlast Toronto. Final Score: Red Bulls 3-2 Toronto