Giovinco's continual evolution in MLS at the heart of Toronto's success

TORONTO -- When Toronto FC acquired Sebastian Giovinco prior to the 2015 campaign, manager Greg Vanney thought he knew what he was getting. Sure, the Italian international's technical gifts were obvious, but player and coach were soon engaged in a bit of back-and-forth as to how best to use them.

You see, Vanney thought he was getting a playmaker, "a nine-and-a-half," someone to be more of a setup man and play a little withdrawn from the more physically imposing Jozy Altidore. That wasn't quite how Giovinco viewed himself. He saw himself as a goal scorer first, an assist man second.

It seems a subtle distinction given that Giovinco can at times be seen dropping into midfield to collect the ball and then run at defenses. And he's more than capable of making the final pass, as evidenced by his 37 assists in the past three seasons (only the New York Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan has more, with 51). But it was one that was important to Giovinco.

To be clear, Giovinco wasn't pouting or being disruptive.

"If the coach asks me what I like to do or to play, I say my opinion," the 30-year-old told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "But I do what they ask me."

He had a willing listener in Vanney, however, one who above all else was trying to maximize Giovinco's effectiveness.

"When I started to work with Seba, he was willing to do anything, but he really felt like his best attributes to help the team were as a forward," Vanney said. "I knew I could get the best out of him as a forward, and it was my job to then organize the team with that in mind. So while we had a little bit of a vision of what it would look like, we still had to adapt to getting the best out of where he is."

So Vanney gave a little and played with two out-and-out forwards in Giovinco and Altidore -- a classic big man/little man combination. And as a result, Toronto and Giovinco gained a lot. TFC have grown into one of the league's elite teams, and on Saturday they'll be aiming for their first MLS Cup title against the Seattle Sounders to complete a domestic treble. On an individual level, Giovinco has scored 55 regular-season goals since arriving in MLS, and the 92 goals he's played a part in are the most of any MLS player in the past three campaigns. Altidore has benefited as well, hitting double-digit goals in each of his three seasons in Toronto.

"For me, it's a pleasure to play with Jozy," the 5-foot-4 Giovinco said of the 6-foot Altidore. "He's more physical, I'm more technical, so we complete each other."

The success highlights how players and coaches need to adapt to their surroundings, and that such a process is a two-way street. It's also one that is ongoing. Three years is more than enough time for opponents to get a feel for a player's tendencies, and Giovinco has noticed that teams have adjusted to him.

"The tactics have changed, for sure, against us -- against me, against Jozy. They play in a different way," he said. "They change everything tactically. It makes it tougher than the last few years. They change the shape and formation against us and try to take away the spaces."

Often that results in what Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp called "swarm defending." But Giovinco proved that such an approach has its limits in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Crew. With four Columbus players closing in on him, Giovinco's back-heel found Altidore, who worked a quick combination with Victor Vazquez and slotted home the only goal of the series.

"It's difficult. I saw around me only yellow-shirted players," Giovinco said. "It's tough to play when you have three, four players against you, but we try to work the best [way] possible."

The addition of Vazquez has shown another way Toronto has massaged things. The Spaniard has been in many ways what Vanney hoped Giovinco would be: the assist man. Vazquez has also provided a different kind of linkage in midfield and allowed some attention to drift away from Giovinco.

"Last year, we miss a player like him," Giovinco said of Vazquez. "He's a player with the last pass. I think for the strikers that's important. Maybe I can stay higher than normal. This year, especially with him, I don't drop too much into midfield."

Vanney hasn't completely given up on the idea of Giovinco as playmaker. As players get older, their games change, and Vanney feels Giovinco could add some years to his career by playing a bit deeper in midfield.

"I think the league is getting so physical, and centre-backs are so physical with Giovinco, and teams spend so much time collapsing on the space around him, that he's going to have to continue to evolve into a guy who finds different spaces in different areas of the field," Vanney said. "And it won't be as easy for him to be a straight-up nine, where big centre-backs are really physical with him. We're not quite there yet, but I do think that as he continues to progress, there could be an evolution to his game."

For now, the focus is on Saturday's MLS Cup final (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), and Toronto appears to have a more complete team than the one that fell on penalties to the Sounders last season -- stronger in the back and one whose attack can hurt opponents in a wider variety of ways. Yet Giovinco will no doubt be in the middle of it all, ready to make adjustments big and small in order to drive his team to the title.