Voices: Joseph Lowery

Bale, Bernardeschi, Insigne: How LAFC & Toronto FC are using their new stars

MLS has amassed some serious star power this summer. With Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi playing for Bob Bradley’s Toronto FC and Gareth Bale playing for Steve Cherundolo’s LAFC, there’s some real attacking talent on display in the league right now.

So, how are Toronto FC and LAFC using their new stars? The sample size is small, but let’s take a look.

Bradley didn’t have to do much thinking when it came time to find spots for Italy national team forwards Insigne and Bernardeschi in his starting lineup. It seems like Bradley always wanted to play out of a 4-3-3 shape in Toronto – and now that Alejandro Pozuelo is off pulling the strings in Miami, Toronto FC don’t have to worry about finding space for a No. 10.

It’s all about the 4-3-3 now, with Insigne on the left wing and Bernardeschi on the right wing. We’re in the early stages of this new era, but Toronto’s two Italian stars have started three games during their time in North America: two in MLS and one in the Canadian Championship Final, which they lost to the Vancouver Whitecaps. For Toronto, who are currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference's Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race looking in, it’s no surprise Bradley has started his stars in each of the last three matches. They need points.

Playing on the left wing, Insigne helps Toronto progress down the flank with some clever right-footed passes. He’ll also drift inside and create opportunities for his teammates with quick combinations. To my eye, it doesn’t look like the ex-Napoli star is always on the same page with his teammates. He holds onto the ball for too long and is in the 84th percentile in time on the ball per touch among outfield players with at least 50 touches this season, per Second Spectrum

Still, he can do stuff like this that cracks a defense right open.

On the opposite side, Bernardeschi is a real threat to defenders. The former Juventus player's mixture of technical ability and physicality makes him a dangerous presence on the right wing. Bernardeschi has a goal and an assist already in his MLS career and takes some dangerous set pieces for Toronto. Like Insigne, however, he’s a little too static and is still trying to find rhythm.

Look at what happens when Bernardeschi releases the ball quickly and Toronto FC move forward as a unit. Bradley will want more of these team-wide possession sequences – ones that flow through his stars or use them as decoys.

Things aren’t perfect right now, but Bradley’s decision to use his two Italian attackers as wingers in a 4-3-3, with striker Jesus Jimenez centrally, makes sense. They’re both uniquely qualified to cause problems for Toronto FC’s opponents. With their precision and technique, Insigne and Bernardeschi are helping in the buildup, finding forward passes and creating in the final third. There’s room for more of all of those things – don’t get me wrong – but so far even the growing pains for Toronto FC have been better than their results in the first half of the season.

One final thought on this new-look Toronto team: adding Insigne and Bernardeschi to the starting XI makes it clear just how much work still needs to be done with their roster build. And Toronto have an open Designated Player spot to work with, so the attack probably isn't yet in its final form.

Summertime trade arrival Mark-Anthony Kaye (from Colorado Rapids) has been dealing with an injury, so Jayden Nelson has started their last two games as a left-sided No. 8. I’m intrigued by Nelson making a Latif Blessing-esque, winger-to-central midfielder transformation, but he probably isn’t the guy you want as the third No. 8 in your depth chart. There are missing pieces in central midfield and gaps in the backline, too.

Going forward, expect to see Toronto FC continue to funnel their attacks through Insigne and Bernardeschi on the wings. The key for Toronto, though, will be finding ways to effectively support their stars in both attack and defense.

Unlike Toronto FC, who need points yesterday if they want to make the playoffs, LAFC have the luxury of bringing Bale along slowly. Steve Cherundolo and LAFC are on top of the Supporters’ Shield standings right now and have a four-point lead, plus a game in hand, over Austin FC in the Western Conference table.

Put simply, LAFC are a very deep and talented team that really didn’t need to sign Bale as he departed Real Madrid. They did, though, which makes all of our lives that much more interesting. Bale has made three appearances for LAFC so far in his MLS career, all as a second-half substitute. He played 18 minutes in a 2-1 win over Nashville SC, 25 minutes in a 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, and 27 minutes in a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders.

Bale has played in every spot across the frontline during his limited time in LA. Against Nashville, he played as a right winger with plenty of license to move inside and find space. Against SKC, he played as a left winger before closing out the game as his team’s only forward. Then against Seattle, Bale played as a left winger, regularly moving centrally to combine and rotate into the striker position.

That rotation has been the biggest theme of Bale’s time in MLS so far. When he’s out on the left wing, he’s not an out-and-out winger. When he’s on the right wing, he’s not an inverted one, either. Instead, he’s basically functioning as a playmaker who starts wide before shifting into the middle to find gaps in the opposition’s defense. It’s a role that suits him well as LAFC kill off games in the second half.

And having someone who can tack on an extra goal on the break, as Bale did against Sporting Kansas City, certainly never hurts.

When the Welsh star is fit enough to start, LAFC will have to change to accommodate him. Bale hasn’t done a ton of defensive work during his three games in MLS, so he’ll likely need some defensive cover from the players around him. Bale will also need the fullback and No. 8 on his side to be flexible and aware of his movement so they can create space for him, instead of clogging passing lanes.

LAFC have the talent – and the time – to work out the kinks with Bale in the lineup before the playoffs. I, for one, am intrigued by what Cherundolo’s team will look like once Bale is ready for a larger role.