TORONTO - Toronto FC could be without five starters for Saturday's game in Los Angeles against the Galaxy and that means more attention on Italian star Sebastian Giovinco.
The five-foot-four 135-pounder has had a target on his back all season and it's growing bigger by the week as his influence over Toronto grows.
No stranger to being the smallest — and one of the best — players on the field, Giovinco is used to being roughed up. And with eight goals and seven assists in 15 games, he has emerged as a leading MVP candidate in his first year in MLS.
But some worry whether the hack-a-Seba strategy is going to spread.
"How do you slow a guy like that down?" said Toronto defender Eriq Zavaleta. "You have to kick him.
"I think that refs are more aware of it now ... (but) he knows he's going to go into games and get kicked. Lionel Messi knows he's going to go into games and get kicked. That's what happens when you've got that much attention but good players find a way to get around it and he's clearly done that so far."
Giovinco has been at the receiving end of 42 fouls so far the season, third in the league behind Portland's Darlington Nagbe (52 in 18 games) and San Jose's Matias Perez Garcia (44 in 15 games).
Toronto (7-6-2) will be short-handed against Los Angeles (7-6-7) with designated players Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and Canadians Ashtone Morgan and Jonathan Osorio on international duty at the Gold Cup. French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou is nursing a calf injury but could be available.
The tactic of fouling Giovinco came to a head June 20 when New York City FC appeared to take aim at the Italian in a 2-0 win at BMO Field.
"He's got scratches all over him. He's been kicked a number of times ... If that's the template (to defend Giovinco), then we're going to need officiating to take care of the players the people come to watch," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said at the time.
He also said Giovinco was being fouled before the ball actually got to him.
On Tuesday, Vanney said the team is active in discussing the rough treatment Giovinco gets — both with the fourth official during games and the league after reviewing game footage.
"And if we see incidents, we will always send them in and ask them to take a closer look or to be aware of these things. The one thing that I think is coming up now a little bit that we're asking the league to look at is things that are slightly away from the ball, maybe not exactly on the ball or when he's touching the ball but maybe in a moment of transition or when he's not exactly involved in the immediate action."
For Vanney, it's no different from any player in the league. They should have the freedom to express themselves as attacking players. "That's what people come to watch."
The Toronto coach doesn't think every team is looking to rough up Giovinco. But the Toronto braintrust are keeping a close eye to make sure the abuse doesn't expand.
The 28-year-old Italian was not made available to reporters Tuesday. Because of the team's busy schedule of late, he had a reduced workout.
Giovinco's teammates sees the abuse he goes through.
"I marvel at how calm he remains for the most part," said midfielder Collen Warner. "I would be really upset with some of the tackles he's seeing (which) are unfortunately off the ball and very intentional.
"He does well to deal with it. Obviously he's probably expecting a little bit of it being that he's our best player. I don't see it changing in the future."
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter