Toronto FC’s Italian era kicks off for real on Saturday with Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi set to make their MLS debuts, joining compatriot Domenico Criscito who already has three TFC appearances under his belt, as Toronto host struggling expansion of Charlotte FC.
“Both are excited (to play),” head coach Bob Bradley said. “And everyone is also excited to get them started. (With only) a few days of training we’ll have to figure out exactly what that means in terms of minutes, things like that, but both are good to go.”
Captain Michael Bradley, Bob’s son, added: “It’s been great in every way. They arrived and saw right away how excited they are to be here, what good people they are, above all. What good professionals they are. How serious they are and how motivated they are to be here. And of course when the training starts you can see the quality.”
For both Bradleys, Bernardeschi and Insigne are two more important pieces of the puzzle.
With the addition of Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, via a trade from Colorado earlier this month, Bob Bradley likely has his starting midfield and attacking game.
Michael Bradley anchors a three-man midfield that includes Kaye and fellow Canadian Jonathan Osorio. Insigne and Bernardeschi are expected to patrol the left and right flanks respectively, with Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez leading the attack.
The Italians bring experience, skill and style. Bernardeschi, Criscito and Insigne have more than 1,200 appearances in Europe and some 120 Italian caps.
“There’s a reason these guys are so famous,” Toronto goaltender Alex Bono said. “You just see it in terms of quality as soon as they step onto the pitch.”
The star power of the trio is hard to miss.
“There seems to be a buzz even around the practice facility, with the guys,” Bono said with a smile. “Everyone wants extra tickets. Everyone’s family wants a piece of the action (Saturday).”
This is the very first meeting between Toronto and Charlotte. And for Toronto, the match comes three days before the Canadian Championship final against the Whitecaps in Vancouver.
In a way, it seems fitting for Toronto to face an Italian coach with Charlotte (interim coach Christian Lattanzio) and Vancouver (Vanni Sartini).
“Look, Toronto has always been a tough team to play against. There’s a real enthusiasm and football culture behind the club,” Lattanzio said. “The signings they made, they would be very good signings for the big teams in Europe.
“And so to have Insigne, Bernardeschi, Criscito added to the squad as well as the names they already have with Kaye, with Bradley, everyone else, Osorio, plus some good young players and experienced players at the back, I think they’re one of the best teams in MLS, so it’s going to be a tough game.”
Toronto (5-12-4) enters the weekend’s game ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference at 14 teams, five spots and seven points below Charlotte. With 13 games remaining in the regular season, TFC has five teams and nine points between them and the playoffs.
Charlotte (8-11-2) is one point out of the playoffs thanks in large part to a strong home record (7-3-0). He struggled on the road at 1-8-2, with his lone win on July 3 at Houston.
Charlotte has conceded two or more goals in eight of 11 road games, compared to just one in its 10 home games
The team has already gone through a managerial run, parting ways with head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez on May 31 with the team at 5-8-1. Lattanzio is expected to end the season as interim head coach.
Charlotte is coming off a friendly win over Chelsea in England, winning in a penalty shootout after the game ended 1-1 in front of 52,673 at Bank of America Stadium.
Their last league outing was a 3-2 loss on Saturday at Inter Miami which saw Charlotte go up 2-0 on a pair of goals from former Whitecap Yordy Reyna, only to lose 3-2 to a winner in the 93rd minute by Emerson Rodriguez. This ended a two-game winning streak.
Charlotte is led by striker Karol Swidersk and midfielder Kamil Jozwiak, both Polish internationals. His other Designated Player is Ecuadorian international midfielder Jordy Alcivar.
Toronto is coming off back-to-back road losses to Montreal (1-0) and Chicago (2-0) in the league. He is winless in five (0-4-1) and has recorded just two wins in his last 14 outings (2-10-2). He hasn’t posted a league shutout since a 0-0 draw at Colorado on Sept. 25, 2021, conceding in 29 straight games.
Saturday’s loss to Montreal marked the seventh time in 12 games that the TFC failed to score after finding the target in 13 consecutive games previously.
Jayden Nelson is available after serving a one-game suspension for accumulating yellow cards against Montreal. But Toronto will be without goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, midfielder Noble Okello and central defender Chris Mavinga, all injured.
Osorio, who missed the Montreal game, has cleared concussion protocols and is available.
Canadian international defender Doneil Henry, waived earlier this month by Los Angeles FC, has trained for a second day with Toronto.
“We’ll see,” Bob Bradley said when asked about Henry. “When I talk about things that are being considered, it’s on the list.”
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This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 22, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press