National Writer: Charles Boehm

Can Lorenzo Insigne meet expectations? Toronto FC’s star embraces the “challenge”


SAN JOSE, Calif. – Lorenzo Insigne is an icon in both Toronto and Naples, a European champion with his national team, one of the brightest stars in Major League Soccer and according to MLS Players Association figures, the league’s highest-paid player by some margin. The diminutive winger turns heads in most rooms he enters, thanks to his style as well as his playing reputation, and still draws tabloid headlines back in his homeland.

He insists, however, that none of that prepared him for the adoration he received when joining Toronto FC last summer, from the moment he cleared customs at Pearson International Airport to his new club’s raucous introduction event before a packed crowd in the city’s Little Italy district.

“Always playing for Napoli, I've always been there. So when I came here and I saw that there were all these fans that welcomed me, and they’re from Italy, I was so impressed by it,” Insigne told in a one-on-one conversation at MLS media day last month.

“It was very flattering that people across the ocean knew who I am and were waiting for me.”

That passionate enclave sews a vibrant thread of Azzurri through the fabric of the Reds’ culture. It helps fill up the stands at BMO Field and keeps the local side relevant in the city’s crowded sports landscape. It provides the backdrop for the Italian influx of the past year, with Insigne joined at TFC by his compatriots Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Criscito (even with the latter’s swift return to their homeland, fullback Raoul Petretta’s subsequent arrival topped up the club’s Italiano contingent).

And with so much riding – both on and off the field – on the success of this gambit, which got off to a decidedly bumpy start last year, it also raises the stakes for both player and club.

“The easiest part was coming to Toronto,” said Insigne of his new adventure, “the welcome that everybody had for me and the support and faith they have in me. The most difficult part is me trying to exchange this faith, and providing them with results for my team, and earning their trust in me, not only outside but on the pitch.

“I'm determined and motivated to give back to the fans what they have been giving to me.”

"You need an entire team"

TFC have been swinging for the fences like this for a decade now, powered by the financial might of parent company MLSE and the scale of Toronto’s vast soccer market. Sebastian Giovinco’s heyday, and the 2017 treble glory it reaped, vindicated the idea of leaning into the Italian angle, yet also set a high standard by which Insigne will be judged.

With six goals and two assists in his first 12 matches, his first few months in North America were statistically productive, especially considering this is his first professional venture outside the homeland, and for all intents and purposes his hometown club, to boot. Yet the Reds still missed out on the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, their classy midseason imports unable to rescue a lopsided roster undergoing a generational shift on the fly.

Sporting director and head coach Bob Bradley cranked up a youth movement to freshen the aging core of the group that reached three MLS Cup finals in four years under now-LA Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney. The hope was the catalytic effect of Insigne & Co. touching down would spark a stretch-run surge. But that fizzled into a second-from-bottom finish in the Eastern Conference table (13th place), underlining the importance of the squad depth even the most transcendent stars need to become championship contenders.

That’s one of Insigne’s chief first impressions of MLS.

“The roster’s the most important part of the game,” he said. “You can't just have one or two great players, you need an entire team. The entire team wins the game. And the organization, Bob, they're all working towards this. I have faith that they're going to have a great roster at the beginning of the season.”

Toronto parted company with nearly a dozen players this winter, and recruited proven MLS experience via free agency in the shape of center back Matt Hedges and goalkeeper Sean Johnson. They signed Norwegian international Sigurd Rosted and brought Victor Vazquez, a hero of the 2017 salad days, back to Lake Ontario’s north shore.

Still, questions linger about the balance of the roster, and the prospects for implementing Bradley’s preferred high-tempo pass-and-press tactics with the personnel at his disposal. Insigne is determined to do his part to make it all work, and it’s noteworthy that the adversaries that caught his attention last season were sturdy collectives rather than his Designated Player counterparts.

“There isn’t an individual player that I could say that stood out for me, per se,” he said. “But I have to say there have been teams that have been incredible, the way they play, the way they're organized. Even the way their club is organized has been very impressed me very highly. The example of teams like Philadelphia and Montréal: they don't have these big names, but the way they played has been incredible.”

Steep learning curve

Insigne also hit a steep learning curve in the athleticism and propensity for chaos that makes MLS a marked change of pace from Serie A – a lesson that’s prompted more time in the weight room.

“The game changed a bit here. It seems to be less tactical than it is in Italy,” said the winger. “Here it's faster, more physical. This is one thing that surprised me the most, and this is why I’m working on my physical health and making myself stronger, so I can keep up with the physicality of the game.”

With so much money invested in the current Reds project, and the high points of the Vanney era imposing such lofty expectations among the fanbase, it figures to be another intense campaign down on the lakeshore. Insigne’s output in his first full year away from Naples will do much to determine in which direction those emotions swing.

“We weren't as successful as we wanted to be,” said Insigne, who's signed through June 2026. “Going forward, we want to help Bob as well, not only help the team inside, but outside as well and help these youngsters and grow into a group and to receive results that we're all looking for. And to work hard together – we're starting from ground, from zero, and it's going to be a new beginning.

“This pressure that I’m feeling, I don't know if it's actual pressure, but it feels like more like a challenge,” he added. “I'm going to challenge myself on the field and it's going to push me forward and motivate me even more to win, and to win trophies for our club.”