Since then, it’s been a dramatic makeover for the Reds. Over the past year, the club have seen 20 players depart and have gone through a pair of coaching changes. Eventually, Bob Bradley was appointed head coach and sporting director in November to quickly overturn the roster and save the sinking ship.
With more players outgoing than incoming, the first part of the year was always going to be difficult, fielding a roster comprised mostly of young players. Expectations were low as the team searched for new long-term, quality solutions to add to its core moving forward.
“The first period in the winter was a starting point,” explained Bradley from the BMO Training Ground last week. “A lot of it was that there were just different issues with players, some of whom were, in a way, already halfway out the door by the time I arrived, so a lot of it was just trying to get that part out of the way. Then you get going trying to implement ideas, playing style, get results, and then you know that when you get into the next [transfer] window, you have to use it in a smart way and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Back to the glory days?
Toronto have been aggressive in the Secondary Transfer Window, capturing headlines by acquiring a trio of Italian internationals – Lorenzo Insigne (signed a pre-contract agreement in January), Domenico “Mimmo” Criscito and Federico Bernardeschi – as well as trading for Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye from the Colorado Rapids.
Now suddenly, the buzz and expectations around Toronto FC have returned to levels seen during the club's run of reaching three MLS Cups between 2016-19. In particular, the excitement for Insigne's debut is immense.
“We think it’s going to be really strong, it has been already,” Toronto FC president Bill Manning told MLSsoccer.com last month when asked about the reception he anticipates Insigne will receive. “You kind of gauge little things, incoming comments, once we announced him, the renewal ratio all of a sudden jumped really high because fans were excited to see us make a signing of that magnitude, chatter socially, just all those little things – everything is literally almost through the roof compared to where we were and that’s what we were hoping to get out of a signing like Lorenzo.”
Although it may not have been their plan right from the jump, Manning believes that the pre-existing familiarity between Toronto’s new Italian trio will only benefit the club. Insigne and Bernardeschi are national team teammates with the Azzurri, while Criscito and Insigne are both originally from Naples and have developed a close relationship.
Also, Bradley has worked with stars like Mohamed Salah and Carlos Vela in the past, and is looking forward to integrating their wealth of top-level experience into training sessions every day, hoping that their overall quality will rub off on their teammates.
“When great players join teams, you can see immediately how the level of training starts to go up,” said the former LAFC boss. “When players are capable on the field of seeing things faster than other players, making special plays, that’s an important part of how a team improves and moves itself forward, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Criscito, a 35-year-old experienced defender signed using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), has already featured for Toronto, adding much-needed quality to a thin backline. He looks to be the real deal, while the new Designated Players, Insigne and Bernardeschi, took part in training this week and appear to be in line to make their debuts as soon as Saturday at home against Charlotte FC (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, TSN in Canada).
No doubt, with the additions of their new Italian stars, Toronto are a better team. As veteran defender Shane O’Neill put it, the additions show that the club “wants to win, and they want to win now.”
But the burning question that still lingers is whether the Reds, who sit 13th in the Eastern Conference standings and eight points below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line (5W-12L-4D record; 19 points), have dug themselves too deep of a hole. With just 13 games remaining, is it too late for TFC to make a run in 2022?
“We’re in a tough spot,” conceded Manning, speaking on the club’s playoff chances Monday. “When Lorenzo and Federico hit the field, we’re not going to have a lot of room for error. We’re looking for them to help deliver, but it’s going to be difficult.”
The team isn’t throwing in the towel on the year. And they have one very real chance to win silverware in the Canadian Championship Final, to be played on July 26 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC for a possible Concacaf Champions League spot (10:30 pm ET | OneSoccer in Canada). Win that, and a playoff spot in 2022 will likely be seen as icing on the cake.
As Manning puts it, Toronto’s enduring “short-term pain” in hopes of building “a perennial championship contender” like they were between 2016 to 2019.
And they now have a core to work off. Both Insigne and Bernardeschi have signed long-term deals through the 2026 season, while Kaye’s contract runs through 2026 as well.
It’s no coincidence that all three of their deals run through the 2026 FIFA World Cup that will take place across the United States, Mexico and Canada – with Toronto named as one of the 16 host cities.
“We have big ambitions as a club,” said Manning. “We’re going through a fast-forward rebuild right now. This was always going to be an incredibly important window for us, this summer window. The four players we added, certainly Mark, Lorenzo, and Federico are going to be core guys through 2026, and Mimmo, the experience that he’s going to give us over the next year-and-a-half … we think is an incredible acquisition as well.”
Will the Italians help rescue Toronto FC in 2022? Considering the team’s current standing, and the lack of minutes spent together on the pitch, perhaps expectations should be tempered a bit. But you can’t blame fans for being excited. Missing for the better part of two years as the team navigated the challenges of the global pandemic, the interest – and the star power – has unquestionably returned to Toronto.
“It’s crazy being 5-12-4, but the excitement I’ve seen for this team right now is as high as since I've been here, maybe leading up to MLS Cup [in 2017],” concluded Manning. “There’s a lot of excitement around Lorenzo and Federico particularly.”
Lorenzo Insigne is here! Can he save Toronto's season?