Crew-Toronto FC Preview
Sebastian Giovinco's importance to Toronto FC's first-ever playoff run already had been well-documented even before he flew across the Atlantic Ocean to single-handedly help the club qualify.
It's part of the reason he's one of the front-runners for the MLS MVP and Golden Boot awards, though Kei Kamara certainly shouldn't be counted out for either honor.
The league's top goal scorers go head to head Saturday as Toronto visits the Columbus Crew in an important match for positioning in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Giovinco played Tuesday in a Euro 2016 qualifier for Italy, then boarded a plane from Rome to Toronto while keeping in touch with coach Greg Vanney about his status for Wednesday's match against the New York Red Bulls.
When his plane landed, Giovinco headed straight to BMO Field, entered in the 71st minute and scored his 22nd goal in the 78th to give Toronto a 2-1 victory that secured the club's first playoff appearance since it entered the league in 2007.
Toronto (15-13-4) has won a team-record four straight to climb into second place in the East with Giovinco - who at the time of signing his contract in January was the league's highest-paid player at $7.1 million - scoring five goals in that stretch.
"He was adamant over the course of the week that he wanted to play," Vanney said. "To be fair, I don't know if I would've thrown him out there (otherwise). He really, really wanted to play, and obviously he's a difference maker."
Toronto sits one point ahead of D.C. for one of the East's first-round byes and two ahead of New England and Columbus (13-11-8), which has hurt its chances of moving up after two straight defeats.
Kamara is tied with Giovinco for the league's scoring lead and netted four goals during a three-game scoring streak before it came to an end in a 2-1 loss to the Red Bulls on Oct. 3.
It's been a breakout season in his second stint with the Crew for Kamara, whose previous career high was 11 goals for Sporting Kansas City in 2012.
"We want Kei to win the Golden Boot," coach Gregg Berhalter said. "We think it would be a great accomplishment for the team and for Kei individually. So we're all pulling for him, and anything we can do in these next couple games to get him there we're gonna do."
Kamara scored in Columbus' 2-0 win over Toronto on March 14 and had a goal to help the Crew jump out to a 3-0 lead in the last meeting July 25. Giovinco began the comeback with a goal before Jozy Altidore's penalty kick in the 89th minute helped Toronto force a draw.
"It's going to be an intense game," Berhalter said. "They have one of the best players - if not the best player - in the league in Giovinco and a very good supporting cast."
Altidore won't play in this match, though, after receiving a red card while on the bench Wednesday for abusive language toward an official. It's unclear if Toronto will have Damien Perquis after he left early with a hamstring injury.