Bernardeschi, Insigne debuts reignite Toronto FC: “We’re building something big”

The magic on the Lakeshore might be back.

“Playing here is so special,” said Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley after Saturday night's 4-0 thumping of Charlotte FC at BMO Field.

“The atmosphere, the feel inside the stadium, our fans, the relationship that the team has with the fans – I swear there’s no stadium in the league with the home-field advantage like this.”

BMO Field was rocking in Week 22 as TFC fans were treated to a show, a night that will surely go down as one of the more monumental and memorable in club history. New star signings Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi made their long-awaited MLS debuts before 29,067 supporters – and the Italian national team forwards and Designated Players were well worth the wait.

Fans were buzzing right from the opening kickoff, and they were rewarded early on when Canadian international midfielder Jonathan Osorio opened the scoring four minutes in off a wild deflection. That was just a taste of what was to come.

Six minutes later, Bradley doubled their lead off Bernardeschi's corner kick before the ex-Juventus star netted his first in a TFC shirt in the 31st minute, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy. A second from Bradley off Insigne's set-up then made it four for Toronto, marking the first time in club history the Reds scored four goals in the first half of an MLS match.

The atmosphere was electric, as head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley noted postgame.

“Boy, just right from the beginning, loud, into it, appreciated the moments of good football," said the former LAFC boss. "And again, getting those guys on the field was exciting from the team, but we also absolutely recognize how exciting it was for the fans and for the city.”

Warm welcome

Those attending the game arrived well before kickoff – long lines began to form long before gates officially opened – ensuring they wouldn’t miss the introduction of the club’s long-awaited new Italian stars.

Supporters, who received flags with Insigne’s trademark ‘Il Magnifico’ celebration, erupted during the pre-game ceremony – an applause that literally shook the stadium – when the former Napoli winger was introduced as a member of the starting XI.

From then on, every time Insigne touched the ball, he was greeted with a roaring ovation.

“I was very pleased,” said Insigne, who played the first 45 minutes alongside Bernardeschi before being subbed off at halftime. “I didn’t expect such a welcome from the fans in the first home game. It was certainly a big emotion, and I hope to return the love to the fans with my game on the field and also in the future.”

Added Michael Bradley, the former US international: “You could feel it driving in. You got the sense over the last few days that it was going to shape up to be a special night and it was in every way. We’re so excited that Lorenzo and Federico are here.”

A long time coming

It’s been a long and grueling couple of years for Toronto, who were forced to play away from home for the better part of two years (2020 and 2021) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, TFC went from perennial MLS Cup contenders to struggling mightily, resulting in one of the more dramatic roster turnovers in league history.

Before Saturday night, Toronto won just five league games in 2022 and played a lot of young and unknown commodities as they awaited the arrival of reinforcements in the Secondary Transfer Window. They're still six points below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line, sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference standings, but there was plenty to cheer about against Charlotte.

The victory was the club's first clean sheet since Sept. 25, 2021, a stretch of 29 games. That matched the third-longest streak in MLS history, per Opta.

“Obviously for different reasons, we’ve missed it over the last few years,” Michael Bradley said. “When we now can walk out into a stadium like tonight, feel the energy with the team we have on the field, it’s a big advantage. It’s a big advantage, so we’re going to continue to need every bit of that, and again, as players, there’s nothing like playing here on these nights.”

Saturday night down by the Lakeshore was special. In many ways, it felt like the turning of a page for the club. The reinforcements had arrived and with that, so did the crowd.

“On behalf of the team, we appreciate every part of the way fans have stuck by us this year, and again, their support is the difference for us,” Michael Bradley said. “So, on a night like tonight, to be able to make it a special night for them, for everybody, that part’s great. Now we’ve got to keep going, keep working.

“We’re building something big and real again.”