Eighteen matches into his first season in Major League Soccer, Sebastian Giovinco is turning heads in every game he plays.
The Italian playmaker, who joined Toronto FC from Juventus in February, has re-energized the franchise and earned his place among the best players ever to set foot on an MLS field in the last 20 years.
While some may say it is too early to stick that tag on Giovinco, he is more than deserving of it. In his first 18 games as a Toronto FC player, Giovinco has 12 goals and nine assists. He has contributed to the most goals of any player in the league, and only seven of Toronto FC's strikes have not featured some type of involvement from the Italian.
Along with propelling Toronto to new heights, Giovinco is also helping change the game in MLS by making it an appealing destination for players in the prime of their career.
Giovinco's path to MLS almost started later than it did, as he was supposed to link up with the Reds during the summer, which is what designated players coming over from Europe normally do.
Instead of waiting until July or August to get acclimated to the league, Giovinco got out of his Juventus contract in February so he could put all of his energy into the new season alongside Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley in the Toronto FC attack.
Thanks to the decision Giovinco made—and Juventus' agreement to let the Italian go to MLS before the season began—he was able to adapt to his new teammates right away. He has avoided going through the same process in the middle of the year that Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo are right now with New York City FC.
"Having Sebastian join us in time for training camp is incredibly important for our team and our plans this year. Sebastian is a world-class player who makes all of his teammates better and his arrival is a monumental moment for Major League Soccer and Toronto," Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said after the signing became official, per Sportsnet.
Giovinco hit the ground running with an assist in Toronto's opener against Vancouver. His first goal came a month later on April 4 against the Chicago Fire. Since opening his MLS account at Toyota Park, Giovinco has put on dazzling attacking displays on some of the league's biggest stages.
His top performance came July 12 against David Villa and NYCFC. The game that was supposed to see the debut of Lampard at Yankee Stadium instead witnessed a 4-4 shootout that brought out the best in Giovinco.
After missing a penalty early in the first half, Giovinco recorded the first hat-trick in club history and the third-fastest three-goal output in MLS history. Starting with a 34th-minute penalty, he put on a brilliant display of individual ability that saw him complete his hat-trick just nine minutes later. On top of the three strikes, he added an assist on Toronto's fourth tally of the match.
"You see what he's capable of doing on a day like today because he brought out a lot of skills and treats. But every game is different. Today, he showed what he's capable of doing. This one has to go down as one of his best games for sure. He was excellent," Toronto boss Greg Vanney told Armen Bedakian of MLSsoccer.com following the game against NYCFC.
While the NYCFC match was Giovinco's breakout game on a national level, everyone who has watched him play has left with the same takeaways. Giovinco, who is arguably the best player in the league, has forced every club to raise the bar in regard to talent. It has also allowed other MLS clubs to try to dip into a talent pool that was rarely touched in the past.
Since David Beckham's arrival in Los Angeles back in 2007, MLS has carried a stigma of being a retirement league. Stars like Freddie Ljungberg, Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Marco Di Vaio all followed in Beckham's footsteps to the league that seemed to improve by the year.
But MLS still faced issues drawing younger talent from overseas to a league on the brink of turning a corner into a new age. Attracting American players in their prime became less of an issue for the 20 MLS clubs after Clint Dempsey returned home to the United States to play for the Seattle Sounders.
Since Dempsey's arrival in the Pacific Northwest, Bradley, Altidore, Jermaine Jones, Mix Diskerud, Brek Shea and Maurice Edu have all signed deals with MLS to play the rest of their respective careers in North America. By locking down American talent that previously plied their trade overseas, MLS also became an ideal destination for young Americans like Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez to stay and further their games at home.
Over the last few years, MLS has also developed a strong pipeline in South America, as plenty of talented athletes from Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay have opted to come stateside and improve the increasingly high standard of play.
However, the one piece missing from the puzzle after the 2014 season was the acquisition of a high-profile European player in his prime. That all changed when Toronto lined up a move for Giovinco and made him one of the highest-paid players in MLS. According to the list of MLS player salaries released July 15, Giovinco is guaranteed to make over $7.1 million in 2015. Orlando City's Kaka is the only player earning more than the Italian.
Thanks to the success of Giovinco and other designated players, MLS recently added a new acquisition mechanism to force clubs to spend. The league introduced targeted allocation money July 8 to help draw even more marquee stars to North America.
The LA Galaxy were the first club to use the targeted allocation money, as they bought Gonzalez's contract down below the designated player threshold in order to bring in Mexican superstar Giovani dos Santos.
"Like I said, it's a league that's growing. The names speak for themselves. It's players that are stars worldwide and it's a league that wants to continue to grow," Dos Santos said in an interview with Univision, per MLSsoccer.com.
"The few MLS games that I've been able to watch I think it's a league that has grown a lot and it's a league that we need to respect and a league that's generating attention," the Mexican star continued.
Targeted allocation money differs from the designated player rule because teams must spend the allotted $100,000 per year in some fashion. If a club opts not to use its $100,000 in 2015, they must spend or trade it by the end of 2016, per the release on MLSsoccer.com. That means at the bare minimum, each of the 20 sides will be spending an extra $100,000 per season, or trading that money so others can spend more.
As more teams are interested in using big amounts of cash to improve their rosters, it is only inevitable they will attack the European transfer market like Toronto did with Giovinco. Acquiring the signatures of top attackers in their prime like Giovinco will take some time, but with the increase in quality on the pitch, the interest certainly will be there.
By stepping up the transfer fees for players of Giovinco's caliber, MLS has also forced itself to improve the quality on the pitch week after week in order to prove to other European players seeking employment in the United States that this is the best option available.
Parity has never been a problem for the league, as any week can produce the unexpected. That also brings plenty of competition to the top of the table in both the Eastern and Western conferences.
After 20 weeks of action in the 2015 season, only three points separate the six teams in play-off spots in the West. The gap from first-place FC Dallas to Colorado in 10th place is 11 points. Things are a bit more spread out in the East, as 11 points sit between the top six clubs, while leader D.C. United and last-place Chicago have a 17-point gap in between them.
Despite some of the early failures from the teams at the bottom of the table, even they are improving as the season goes on. Once seen as the true bottom feeders of the league, Colorado has pulled together a three-game winning streak, while lowly Chicago is slowly starting to put things together under manager Frank Yallop.
Ten of the 20 clubs in MLS have already gone on a winning streak of three games or more, while each side has come out victorious in two consecutive matches on at least one occasion in 2015. With an array of parity around the league, there are plenty of potential destinations for big-name players to move to and play for a play-off contender.
Another thing going for the league is the development of youth prospects. MLS was in a decent position in regard to development with the homegrown player rule, but those efforts have increased now that most teams are aligned with an affiliate in the lower division of American soccer.
The New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas and LA Galaxy are among three of the clubs benefiting the most from the influx of youth, which is as important as flooding the rosters with pricey international talent.
While there are plenty of improvements still needed for MLS to be considered a top league in the world, most notably the poor refereeing we have seen almost every week in 2015, the signs of progress are there. With Giovinco at the forefront of the new era in the league, MLS is in great hands given the Italian's electric start in Toronto.
Something more important to the Atomic Ant than improving the league as a whole is handing the fans in Toronto some hope that their beloved franchise isn't doomed of ever qualifying for the play-offs.
That hope dwindled significantly after the 2014 season unfolded in tumult, with Jermain Defoe eventually leaving the club for a move back to England. The Defoe situation, which was not helped by the player's injury situation and a late managerial change, allowed Toronto to bring in Altidore in a swap deal with Sunderland.
Altidore and Giovinco were the missing pieces up top that Bradley needed to work with throughout his first year in Toronto red. Toward the end of the 2014 campaign, Bradley was stuck doing most of the work from box to box in order to set up a potential Toronto attack.
"Every time you bring a new player into the club, they have to fit into that culture that is in that locker room. We as the coaches, because we need to improve our culture, are going to be the forefront to helping to establish that culture," Vanney said at the end of the 2014 season, per MLSsoccer.com.
"That's going to be on myself, my staff…everybody that's around this building that will function next year at a higher standard," the manager continued.
This season, opposing defenses have three big-name attack-minded players to prepare for since Bradley has been given a license to roam forward. The United States captain has been handed a bigger responsibility in attack of late thanks to Collen Warner's understanding of the defensive midfield role.
While some of the same defensive problems still linger around the Reds, they are in much better shape now because their designated players are performing like they should. Mista and Torsten Frings are just two of the players that didn't succeed in Toronto in recent years as designated players.
On top of that, plenty of former Toronto stars put up impressive numbers elsewhere. Joao Plata, Luis Silva, Quincy Amarikwa and Maxi Urruti are just a few of the young athletes the Reds have let go that have thrived in other cities.
Even with the history of underperforming and miserable designated players still fresh in the minds of Toronto fans, the promise of earning a spot in the play-offs for the first time in franchise history is alive and well. Whether the fourth-place club in the East can make a run at the top spot held by D.C. United remains to be seen, but the potential is there with Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco firing on all cylinders.
"I don't think of the stats, I just think to play and achieve the best I can do. Everything comes along with it," Giovinco said after his side's win over Montreal on June 24, per Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star.
Although he has only been a Toronto FC player for six months, Giovinco has already started to change the culture at the club and around the league as a whole.
If he continues to score goals, not only will Toronto prosper in the long term, MLS will benefit from the eventual inclusion of more highly rated European stars who will use Giovinco's success as an example of why they should move to North America.
We may not see the full effect from the Giovinco transfer for a few years, but it is already certain MLS has taken a giant leap in the right direction with the Italian in the fold.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.