There was a time where fans believed Toronto FC had a shot at climbing back atop the MLS mountain for this season.
That thought is long gone now.
After a little over a year, the excitement surrounding the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi has turned to disappointment and confusion.
The Reds currently sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are second last in the league with 22 points, staring at the reality of missing playoffs for the third straight year.
TFC have scored just 23 goals all season (the championship year of 2017 produced 74). Nine of those this time have come from the Italian duo that are two of the highest paid players in the league.
“There was an expectation that ‘we [Insigne and Bernardeschi] won our entire careers essentially … we’re going to come and we’re so good that Toronto is going to be a club that wins’. But that’s not how it played out,” said Michael Singh, a beat writer for Toronto FC.
“When things started to go awry or things go wrong, they weren’t in the mental headspace to absorb those blows and keep moving forward. Instead, they started to cause a bit of drama. When that happens in the dressing room from two big pieces, it causes a ripple effect.”
This is where the word culture comes in, and that it has broken down at TFC.
“I think it stems from the fact that there wasn’t enough research done to build a proper team around these guys, or if they were the right guys to build a team around.”
At the front and centre of these issues was Bob Bradley, the former sporting director and manager of Toronto FC, who was relieved of his duties on June 26.
Singh believes Bradley was dealt an unfair hand.
“I don’t want to absolve Bob Bradley of any of the blame … that being said, a lot of the decisions were out of his hand,” said Singh. “It wasn’t his decision to sign Lorenzo Insigne, in fact, I know that he didn’t want to sign Insigne and thought TFC could use the $14-million (US) a season and put that to way better use,”
Since coming to Toronto, Insigne has appeared in 28 matches between two seasons.
At the time of his signing in January 2022, he was the highest paid player in MLS history, before Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets signed with Inter Miami CF earlier this year.
“Bradley had to expedite his process halfway through. Because Insigne was coming, Bernardeschi was coming, and these guys weren’t used to losing. So, while he wanted to do a slower rebuild, unfortunately it was out of his hand and he had to make some moves to help Toronto FC win right away.
“And when he made some wrong moves, it was just everything trying to go too quickly.”
Asked about the careers of Insigne and Bernardeschi in Toronto, Singh says the future of the two Italian stars lies in their hands.
“It’s ultimately their decision. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to knock on the door of Toronto FC and offer the same amount of money to those players. But if they want to go, there would be teams that would interested in both of those players at a discount.
“Do they hate Toronto that much that they’re willing to walk away from millions of dollars, or are they going to buy into the project that John Herdman and Toronto FC are selling to them once again. It’s up to them.”
Singh theorizes that Herdman, who was previously the manager for both the mens and womens Canadian national team, was hired to reset the culture of Toronto.
“It’s something he’s been successful at most of his career,” he said. “He came in and rebuilt those cultures … it’s kind of a similar situation with Toronto FC. There’s a lot of broken factions of the club behind the scenes. And Herdman is going to have to find a way to unite everybody and rebuild that culture.”
Through all of the negatives, there may be positive around the corner in Sebastian Giovinco.
Arguably one of the greatest players to play for Toronto FC and reports that the TFC legend has been practicing with the team, Giovinco’s return seems to be a big possibility.
If he was to sign, it would have to be done on Sept. 15, as there will be a league-wide roster freeze for all MLS teams, according to the 2023 MLS Roster Rules and Regulations.
Singh says his signing has one potential issue.
“One caveat to that is it does matter what he wants. Giovinco and Toronto FC would have no problem signing until the end of this season … does Giovinco want more of a guarantee? What if he wants a guarantee of being on the roster next season as well?
“Toronto FC really has to think hard as to whether or not Giovinco at this point of his career is worth signing for a year and a half and if it’s worth taking minutes away from some of the younger players on the roster that have shown promise.
“I’d be surprised if that doesn’t get sorted out and by Friday, he’s a member of Toronto FC.”
As the season winds down, Toronto looks towards Saturday when they play the Vancouver Whitecaps in a return match for fan-favourite Richie Laryea.