Toronto FC made the biggest splash of the offseason thus far when, on Saturday, they made official the signing of Napoli and Italian national team winger Lorenzo Insigne. To borrow from a previous marketing campaign: It is a bloody big deal.
Insigne is in his prime, a star for his club – his boyhood club, the only club he’s ever been on the books for (he’s played for three other Italian sides on loan) – and a starter for his country. That includes this past summer when he started six of Italy’s seven games en route to winning the Euros.
Over the past decade he has been one of the best players in Serie A, putting up seasons with counting stats like 12g/10a, or 18g/8a, 10g/5a. Last year was his finest, with 19 goals and 8 assists. Currently he’s at 4g/5a in just shy of 1100 minutes in the league, and if anything, that undersells just how great Insigne has been:
That is the profile, via fbref, of one of the world’s best attacking wingers. No caveats. Full stop.
Obviously, a player like this should dominate in the type of system Bob Bradley is likely to install. TFC, under Bradley, will surely play a high-energy, front-foot 4-3-3, one that is primarily ball-dominant but that gets that way by pressing like hell and winning the ball high up the pitch in the first place. Insigne won’t be the point man of that press, just like Carlos Vela wasn’t the point man of LAFC’s high press. But in both cases, the overall strategic raison d’etre for the press was/will be to get the ball on the foot of the star attacker in the final third as much as is possible.
Even if that were the entire extent of the plan (it won’t be), it’d be a damn good plan! I still think Vela’s magnificent 2019 season is untouchable and will likely stay that way for a long time. But Insigne’s better than Vela. Put the ball on his foot. Let him work. Score goals. Win games. Play fun soccer.
It’s a good formula for this TFC side, which crashed hard in 2021 and need some new life. Insigne – and the host of other moves they’ve made so far, and other moves that are sure to come – gives them that.
The question I’m meant to ponder in this column, though, is whether it does the same for the league. Where does Insigne’s signing fit in? Here’s one take:
I think, on the face of it, that feels about right. Beckham had played well in his year before coming to MLS, as had the likes of Thierry Henry and David Villa, but all those guys (and others, like Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al) were on the downslope of their respective careers. Sebastian Giovinco was in his prime, but was never the type of talent Insigne’s proved to be over the past decade. Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez both fell well short of expectations, but there’s no question both guys kicked off a new era of shopping for MLS teams.
If the Insigne signing works out, it has the potential to do the same. He is, at age 30, coming to the end of his prime, but is still very much in his prime. No MLS team has ever signed a player of this caliber at this moment in their career before. If there are more to come – and there will, eventually be more to come; that is inevitable – Insigne will be remembered as the first. A turning point for the league, and not just for one team.
It is a big, bold and by all accounts, record-breakingly expensive gamble from the Reds. They have had their share of success making big, bold, expensive gambles before. They changed the league when they did so last time.
It feels like they may just have done it again.