Voices: Sam Jones

Where Lorenzo Insigne fits into MLS’ most consequential signings

Lorenzo Insigne will officially join Toronto FC come July 1 after a , which means we get a full six months of columns out of it and everyone else gets a full six months to worry about how much the Italian star is about to hurt their team in particular. It’s the kind of move that can catch and hold onto your attention for that long.

We won’t know exactly how big of a deal it actually is until years from now when we take into account the full ramifications, but it feels like a good a time as ever to take a wide-eyed, “ohmygoodness what is happening” look at a signing that's bound to affect Major League Soccer for years to come. After all, he's signed a four-year Designated Player deal through June 2026.

To try and take the unexpected and put all of its potential ramifications near and long-term into context, let’s take a look at the most *consequential transfers in MLS history and see where Insigne might fit in.

* Consequential can mean so many different things here and I had to make a bunch of arbitrary decisions to get this list in place. Just keep in mind I’m looking at the impact of the transfer itself and not the impact the player had on his team while playing for them. Yes, we ranked my arbitrary decisions. Y’all love rankings, everyone loves rankings.

Thierry Henry
New York Red Bulls

This whole section could just be a video of someone pointing to a sign with Henry’s name on it over and over again and just saying “LOOKIT.” It’s Thierry Henry. His association with anything is instantly noteworthy. However, I’ll admit, it was a tough decision for me to put him in the top five.

If we’re talking “consequential” transfers, there are a whole handful of ways we can look at that. Other options for this fifth spot included, but weren’t limited to: Pity Martinez (South American Player of the Year, reportedly the most expensive transfer in MLS history), Sebastian Giovinco (Insigne before Insigne), Didier Drogba (living legend), Wayne Rooney (Wazza), David Villa (self-explanatory) and Robbie Keane (duh).

In the end, I picked Henry for being the player who solidified the Beckham effect as more than just a flash in the pan. Even if you can point to his signing as an “MLS 2.0” deal and an affirmation of the recently announced as deceased by those paying attention “retirement league” narrative, you can’t deny those kinds of moves were important in capturing the attention of new fans and the soccer world at large.

I was just starting high school when he came to New York (y’all are old) and I didn’t exactly have my full attention turned to the league. But I knew Henry played for New York. I imagine others had a similar experience. And it helped pave the way for similar moves down the road and to an extent furthered the sense of legitimacy around the league as a product worth watching.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
LA Galaxy

This is basically the Henry section except ratchet up the PR boost multiple notches. I’d argue there’s never been as prominent of a personality as Ibrahimovic in the league. Even if it didn’t quite have the same knock-on effects as other signings, the full-page ad in the LA Times, the Jimmy Kimmel appearance, the video of him with an actual lion, and the unreal amount of hype (that he immediately lived up to) felt like a \moment\ even before he had the \moment\ we’re all thinking about. And it all happened at a time when the league began to take a few giant steps forward in overall quality.

Beckham, Henry and Ibrahimovic all brought attention and credibility in different ways. Ibrahimovic happened to bring it at a moment when MLS was moving towards becoming an exponentially improving product and one that was far different from when the first two came into the league.

Miguel Almiron
Atlanta United

Remember that exponential improvement I mentioned? I think you can make a relatively fair argument it started here. Almiron obviously doesn’t carry the clout of the first two on the list, but he marked the full-blown beginning of a trend that’s seen young, highly-touted South American players become the norm in MLS.

I’m cheating a bit here because Almiron also offered near-immediate proof of concept once he took the field and other teams probably would have started this movement with or without him going to Atlanta. But he gets credit for getting the ball rolling on a new era in MLS. And while he didn’t quite single-handedly change the league like the first spot on our list did and the second spot might, I think you can still designate before Almiron and after Almiron as a clear marker in the league’s growth.

Also: It sure helps that the Paraguay international procured the league's most expensive outgoing transfer when he joined Premier League side Newcastle United for a reported $26 million after winning MLS Cup 2018.

Lorenzo Insigne
Toronto FC

I’m taking a big, big swing here. And it’s just as likely I’m proven right as it is I end up on one of those “OLD HOT TAKES EXPOSED” accounts. But the context of Insigne’s move both indicates further confirmation of MLS’ validity as a league and indicates a major step forward for the future. Whatever MLS point 0 we’re on right now, this might take us to the next one.

That’s not because Insigne is a bigger star than others on this list. He’s not. But there’s an argument to be made he’s the best player on this list at the time of his signing. This is a guy who just won Euro 2020 with Italy and who finished with 19 goals and eight assists in Serie A. He may instantly be the best player in the league when he steps on the field.

And that’s all great. However, what might make this a true flashpoint moment is the simple fact he’s about to be paid a lot of money – reportedly around $15 million a year, a new tier of MLS salary. The proof of concept here is that MLS teams have the cash and the ability to attract players at a higher level of the sport than they ever have before.

It not only means more and better players will see the league as a viable option, but it also means teams around the league will be willing to spend more on players of a similar profile. In the ultimate “a rising tide lifts all boats” league, this investment is a major, major deal. Especially as MLS moves toward an expanded, reimagined Leagues Cup (in 2023) with Liga MX they’ll be eager to compete at a high level and a 2026 World Cup that should be massive for the growth of the sport in the region.

Insigne’s signing could potentially lead to similar growth in the way David Beckham and the Designated Player rule reshaped the way teams would, and most importantly, could spend money.

David Beckham
LA Galaxy

Again, the guy essentially has his own rule.

There’s never been a bigger star in MLS, there’s never been a more consequential player to the growth of the league. Including the fact the deal he took to sign with MLS led to the creation of Inter Miami CF years down the line. He had to be number one. And it’s hard to envision how he’s ever dethroned.