The Union became the latest victim of Toronto FC star Sebastian Giovinco's scorching-hot run of form on Saturday, falling by a 2-1 margin at BMO Field.
Giovinco once again justified his $7.1 million salary - the second-highest in Major League Soccer - with a goal and an assist. In seven games since the start of June, the "Atomic Ant" has registered seven goals on 49 shots, and has set up three tallies for teammates.
It was never any secret that Giovinco would pose a huge test to the Union's defense. He would have if captain Maurice Edu had not been suspended, and he was even more of a threat against against replacement starter Ethan White.
The Union's attack got the better start to the game, though, registering three shots in the first 20 minutes. C.J. Sapong came closest to scoring, after Vincent Nogueira sprung him in the eight minute with a brilliant turn and through ball. Sapong got around Toronto goalkeeper Joe Bendik, but was just a little too far wide to turn his shot into the net.
"We had our opportunities," midfielder and captain Brian Carroll said. "We just weren't as clean as we needed to be all over the field."
Toronto started to find its footing after that, though, and scored in the 29th after a pretty passing sequence through the center of the field. Collen Warner started it by finding Jonathan Osorio, who fed Giovinco, who got the ball to Marky Delgado for a hard, close-range shot that Brian Sylvestre had no chance to stop.
Three minutes later, Giovinco doubled Toronto's lead. Despite being surrounded by multiple Union fenders, the "Atomic Ant" hammered the ball right at Sylvestre from some 35 yards, then sprinted through the Union defense to grab the rebound and slot it home. The sun-drenched crowd of 25,032 roared its approval for a player who was snubbed by fans leaguewide in All-Star voting, but was added to the squad Saturday evening.
"He's a triple threat: he can beat you off the dribblle, he can shoot from distance, and then he can make a pass too, so you have to respect that," Curtin said. "For me, he's the MVP of the league."
Giovinco came inches away from adding another goal in the 39th. He was sprung on a breakaway by Jozy Altidore, who stormed up the middle of the field and laid off an inch-perfect pass for the 5-foot-8 Italian. Fortunately for Sylvestre, Giovinco shot inches wide of the far post. Altidore later had a scoring chance of his own on a close-range header, but it was blocked by Union defender Ray Gaddis.
Curtin admitted that the Union, like many other observers, weren't quite expecting Altidore to be back in Toronto this weekend after playing for the United States national team in the group stage of the Gold Cup. If there were any questions about Altidore's health or fitness after his surprising departure from Jurgen Klinsmann's squad, his strong performance against the Union likely answered them.
"We assumed [Altidore] would be at the Gold Cup, but obviously coming in there he wanted to show well and put the work in," Curtin said.
Conor Casey scored the Union's lone goal at the start of stoppage time. He trapped a long pass at the edge of the 18-yard box, uncorked some fancy footwork to create space for himself and hit a low shot past Bendik. The big striker had a chance to tie the score in the game's final seconds, but sent a header wide left of the net.
Losing to Giovinco is a short-term problem, but the Union also were dealt potential long-term problems when Andrew Wenger and Richard Marquez had to be subbed out due to injuries.
Wenger got hit in the head in the 38th minute and sustained a concussion. Marquez departed in the 71st after getting tangled up in a collision at the middle of the field and rolling his left ankle. Curtin said Marquez could be out for a week or two; Wenger's return will be dictated by MLS' concussion protocol.
In between the two moves, Cristian Maidana was replaced by Zach Pfeffer in the 61st minute. Curtin said that Maidana "got kicked in the foot early and didn't look like himself the rest of the time, and I wanted to give Zach a shot."
Pfeffer could have won the Union a penalty kick in the 72nd minute when TFC defender Ashtone Morgan hauled him down as Bendik scooped up a loose ball. Referee Jorge Gonzalez didn't call it, leaving Curtin even more frustrated than he already was.
At least Curtin will be able to put this game in the rear-view mirror quickly, as the Union now shift focus to Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal game at the rival New York Red Bulls. Fernando Aristeguieta will likely return to the Union's lineup at Red Bull Arena because C.J. Sapong is suspended, but there will be challenges elsewhere in the lineup because of Saturday's injuries.