Last year, when his teammates needed him most, Sebastian Giovinco became the Atomic Can’t.
Giovinco pulled himself off during the late stages of December’s MLS Cup — which many said contributed to Toronto FC’s stunning loss.
It was the first bit of criticism the Italian received following two full seasons of unbelievable performances and production and high praise. A slow start to 2017 threatened more of the same.
More questions had been raised ahead of Tuesday night’s Canadian Championship final.
Does Toronto FC still need Giovinco? Is he still worth the money?
Is it time for TFC’s top brass to sell high and search for a replacement ahead of next season?
Those questions were answered — emphatically — during another thrilling fixture between the Reds and Montreal Impact when the Atomic Ant buried both goals in a 3-2 aggregate win.
“It should be (a reminder),” Vanney said of Giovinco. “Today he showed that, in certain moments, he’s just a little quicker and sharper than everyone else. He has the ability to make plays.”
Giovinco’s biggest moment arrived seconds from the end.
With a record Canadian Championship crowd of 26,539 sucking the ball towards goal, Giovinco fought off a tackle before rolling the ball to Victor Vazquez.
Toronto FC’s Spanish midfielder picked out Raheem Edwards’ overlapping run before the Canadian slid in a cross that Giovinco put home with the outside of his boot.
“I’m proud of him because he has been working incredibly hard in every facet of what we do at the training grounds to get himself into the condition he’s arriving into,” Vanney said.
It’s what he’s being compared to, that’s the issue.
Giovinco’s chasing the numbers he put up — 22 goals and 16 assists — during his MVP season. He’ll likely never reach them again.
But what we saw Tuesday night was a player who’s hungry to help his club win trophies.
When the Reds needed him most — in a Cup final against a bitter rival — the shortest man on the field stood tallest.
“For the strikers it’s always beautiful, especially when you’re playing a final,” Giovinco said after lifting the Reds to their sixth Canadian Championship. “I feel good. We look forward. That’s it.”
Impact bench boss Mauro Biello was more than willing to look back, claiming referee David Gantar influenced the proceedings in a match that often times didn’t make sense.
“It’s two teams who are competing hard in a big match,” Vanney answered. “If it came down to officiating, then they can take that as their out for tonight.”
Gantar’s rough night had little to do with the outcome. Two of the big calls — including a missed penalty with minutes remaining — went against Toronto FC.
But the Reds battled through it, feeding off the atmosphere before coming back from a goal down after Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla put the visitors in front 2-1 on aggregate with a curling effort in the first half.
“This place is unbelievable,” Michael Bradley said of the near-capacity crowd at BMO Field. “Find me another place in this league on a Tuesday night that looks and sounds like this.
“The atmosphere tonight was playoffs in June. We can’t thank every person who comes to this stadium for the atmosphere and the energy, but together we can make some special nights.”
Vanney wasted no time making changes coming out of halftime, bringing on both Jozy Atlidore and Marky Delgado in an effort to jump-start a TFC attack that had struggled to break down Montreal’s progressively deeper defence.
The changes almost immediately paid dividends. The Reds poured forward in search of an equalizer before Maxime Crepeau was called into action again.
Giovinco’s initial deflected shot in the 53rd minute sat up perfectly for a rebound attempt he put on goal, only to see the Impact’s reserve netminder make another tremendous stop.
Less than a minute later, Giovinco found an equalizer when he chested down a long diagonal from Bradley, cut inside and blasted a left-footed grass-cutter that beat Crepeau at the near post.
Ex-TFC winger Dominic Oduro threatened to put the tie to bed a little more than 10 minutes from full-time when a long corner was headed back across goal where the Ghanaian attempted a second header from close range that bounced wide of the back post.
Altidore should have done the same minutes later when he rose to meet a cross from Steven Beitashour, only to see his glancing header miss over the frame from inside the six-yard-box.
The Reds were incensed minutes from the end when Giovinco was brought down inside the area by a wild lunge from defender Kyle Fisher. But instead of pointing to the spot and sending Fisher off, Gantar allowed play to continue.
Things finally boiled over moments before stoppage-time when Montreal’s Patrice Bernier was sent off for a dangerous challenge that left Delgado in pain. A brief melee ensued before Gantar brandished a red card, ending Bernier’s night before injury time.
Giovinco scored moments later to lift TFC to another berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Reds will enter the Round of 16 of that tournament next February.