Voices: Joseph Lowery

Lorenzo Insigne vs. Hector Herrera: Who will have a bigger impact in MLS?

0614 Insigne Herrera

Man, it feels like yesterday we were all sitting around and daydreaming about what it would look like when Lorenzo Insigne and Hector Herrera stepped on the field in MLS.

We don’t have to daydream much longer: Those two players become eligible to play for their respective new teams, Toronto FC and Houston Dynamo FC, on July 9. Toronto are hosting the San Jose Earthquakes that Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), while Houston are welcoming FC Dallas for a Texas Derby matchup (8:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).

Insigne and Herrera both come to MLS with impressive pedigrees – and they’re clearly talented players. How will each of them impact their new teams? And which one of them will have the bigger impact in MLS?

Let’s talk about that.

Signed: Pre-contract on Jan. 8 from Napoli (Serie A)

Sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference isn’t exactly where Toronto FC hoped they would be in the weeks leading up to Insigne’s debut. Put simply, the early stages of the Bob Bradley era in Toronto haven’t been good. TFC are averaging the third-lowest expected goals per 90 minutes in MLS and they’re allowing the most expected goals per 90 in MLS, per Second Spectrum.

That’s, uh, not a positive sign.

While Insigne won’t solve Toronto’s defensive issues, he is uniquely qualified to help his new team generate scoring opportunities. For as poor as Toronto FC have been at creating chances in 2022, they have shown some positive signs in possession. Out of all 28 MLS teams, they are 20th in possessions per game that end in the final third and 16th in passes completed into Zone 14 and the box.

Those numbers aren’t great, but relative to their xG, they should be a little encouraging to Toronto FC fans. Toronto don’t move the ball into high-value spaces at an elite level, but they are finding dangerous spaces at an okay clip. Insigne, who loves to occupy the left halfspace, will give Bradley another level of attacking quality and he’s going to help Toronto move the ball into valuable areas.

Even more importantly, though, Insigne is going to help Toronto FC create chances once the ball is in those areas. Per FBref, Insigne finished in the 87th percentile among attacking midfielders and wingers in Europe’s top five leagues last season in shot-creating actions per 90. He also finished in the 93rd percentile for key passes and the 92nd percentile for completed passes into the penalty area.

Adding the Italian’s ability to cut inside from the left and get the ball on his right foot should very quickly make Toronto a better team. It never, ever hurts to have a guy like this in your attack.

Now, Toronto FC probably aren’t going to be night-and-day better until they sort out their defensive issues. At the moment, they’re too open defensively (27 goals allowed, third-worst in MLS). In 2022, no team has given up more passes per 90 minutes into their own box or Zone 14 than Toronto.

Still, Insigne should help improve his new team.

Signed: Pre-contract on March 2 from Atletico Madrid (LaLiga)

Like with Insigne, it’s easy to see the general area of the field Herrera will occupy for the Dynamo. He’s going to be a central midfielder for head coach Pablo Nagamura. If we go one layer deeper, though, it’s not quite as straightforward to imagine what specific central midfield role Herrera will play for the Dynamo.

After starting the season off in a 4-3-3 with a lone No. 6 and two No. 8s, Nagamura has had some success with a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot and a No. 10 (usually Darwin Quintero or Memo Rodriguez). With his quality on the ball, Herrera would be a good fit to play as the more advanced midfielder in the double pivot. He finished in the 87th percentile for progressive carries per 90 and in the 78th percentile for progressive passes per 90 among players in Europe’s top five leagues last year.

You can see Herrera’s quality passing on display right here, where he’s on national team duty with Mexico.

Still, Coco Carrasquilla currently plays the more advanced central midfield role in Houston’s double pivot – and the Panamanian international is playing it very well. Carrasquilla is one of the best ball-carriers in all of MLS right now. Though they have similar attacking skill sets, using only one of Carrasquilla or Herrera at a time feels like a waste of talent.

Herrera could play alongside or slightly behind Carrasquilla in the double pivot, using his understanding of space and his ability to read the game to stymie opposing attacks. Or, Nagamura may need to change Houston’s shape back to the 4-3-3, where those two players could both slot in as more advanced No. 8s in front of a defensive midfielder. Herrera knows that No. 8 role very well from his time with El Tri.

Regardless of how exactly Nagamura decides to use Herrera, the 32-year-old has the quality to impact games in Houston. Now, I do have some concerns about Herrera’s defensive mobility as he continues to age. His defensive actions per 90 (like tackles, pressures and interceptions) actually haven’t declined over the last few years with Atletico Madrid, which is a good sign. Still, Herrera hasn’t played more than 1,200 league minutes since 2018-19 when he was with Porto in the Primeira Liga in Portugal.

If Herrera has the kind of mobility that can help him dominate a midfield with and without the ball, the Dynamo’s ceiling is about to go way up. Even if he becomes more of a one-dimensional connector, he’ll raise Houston’s floor.

Who will have a bigger impact?

Based on where Toronto and Houston are in their conference standings, Herrera may have the bigger impact during the second half of this MLS season.

The Dynamo are currently sitting in seventh place in the West and they could conceivably stay above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line with some help from Herrera in the midfield. While Toronto FC could make a push for the playoffs (they’re only four points out of seventh place in the East), Insigne isn’t the only piece they need to stabilize their on-field product. Bradley and club president Bill Manning need to get to work in the Secondary Transfer Window.

With July 9 getting closer and closer, all that’s left for us to do is to sit back and wait for these stars to debut.