Toronto FC

Debutants Bernardeschi, Insigne breathe new life to Reds, spark massive win over Charlotte FC

When the result is a night like that, it was certainly well worth the wait.

Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi made their debuts for Toronto FC in a 4-0 win over Charlotte FC on Saturday night at BMO Field.

Jonathan Osorio opened the scoring in the 4th minute, somewhat fortuitously, when a clearance rebounded off his posterior and into the Charlotte goal, but the finish should not distract from a wonderful passage of play that saw TFC progress up-field sharply.

Michael Bradley added a second six minutes later with a deft flicked-header at the near-post from a Bernardeschi corner kick and Bernardeschi himself added the third in the 31st minute with a low left-footed shot from range, guided into the bottom right corner of goal.

The TFC captain closed the half with his second, forcing a turnover that led to a series of quick passes and an Insigne back-heel that allowed Bradley to charge into the area and lift another over Kristijan Kahlina.

“A really good start, everybody was excited,” began Bob Bradley post-match. “You could see, in a short amount of time, that there's a good way that players connect on the field. And the more guys that connect, the more ideas that are going fast, the better the football gets.”

“We had moments where the football that I talk about all the time, where I say I see it in bits and pieces, when all of a sudden you have those guys on the field and others start to play off of them, and the midfield three, already you can see the understanding that exists between Mark-Anthony [Kaye] and Oso and Michael, and then how that three are in-sync with the others,” he outlined. “That's fun. That's the start of real football, where you can do that more and more and more.”

“Hopefully we can keep building on that. We would hardly pretend that after a couple of days with these guys and there we are. Even at halftime we remind them that there's still some moments where we're a little careless with the ball and we have to deal with transition. I see it all, but there was a lot of positives,” Bradley added. “Lorenzo is so sharp, he's a smart guy, you're managing his minutes, but he knows how to manage himself. What you see is just how quick he sizes up different moments. Federico has quality, also works. Great to see.”

One could sense the anticipation in the air before the opening whistle.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Insigne through a translator. “I'm very happy about this debut – I didn't expect it, but it's great to celebrate with such a victory.”

Echoed Bernardeschi: “So wonderful.”

“The fans are fantastic and today, for me and for the team, is a special day. We start the first game together and we played good football,” he smiled. “I'm so very happy for this game, for my first goal and my first assist in MLS.”

The Italian duo did not disappoint in their first 45 minutes, each registering an assist and Bernardeschi opening his account.

“What do you guys see?” replied Alex Bono, asked his impression of their debuts. “It was pretty fun to watch. You can see the class and experience that they bring.”

“From the moment that both of them touched the ball, the huge roar of the crowd; everyone was excited to see them out there, I was excited to see them out there,” he continued. “It doesn't take a lot of research to see what they bring to our team, it doesn't take a lot of research to see the special things that they've both done. And Mimmo [Domenico Criscito] as well, he brings a real touch of class for us too. So to have all three of them out there today was amazing. They obviously gave us a boost.”

That anticipation began to crescendo when the starting lineup was read out in the first name-call, second name-response pattern as it always is. With The Legend TFC playing, ‘Bernardeschi’ and ‘Insigne’ were given extra emphasis.

The reception was not missed.

“I was very pleased and I didn't expect such a welcome from the fans in this first home game,” said Insigne in Italian. “It was certainly a big emotion and I hope to return the love to the fans with my game on the field.”

It was a special night.

“It’s special for me, because it's the first, no?” grinned Bernardeschi. “Today, for me, it was important the team win. For the fans, for the confidence, and for the future now. Today starts a new season. And well done, no?”

Michael Bradley has had many special nights at BMO. 

“Yeah, really, really big night,” he said post-match. “You could feel it driving in, you got the sense over the last few days that it was going to shape up to be a special night and it was in every way.”

“We're so excited that Lorenzo and Federico are here. Obviously Mimmo has been here with us for a few weeks, played a few games,” Bradley continued. “It's not been an easy or straightforward year up, there's been a lot of moving parts, but the group has kept at it in a really strong way. The fans have stuck with us, even though it's not been easy. And for everyone to get a little bit of a reward tonight is special and deserved.”

“And so I'm happy for everyone in that sense,” closed the captain. “We also understand that it's just one game. Recovery for Tuesday night starts now.”

Bono has had his fair share as well.

“It was felt pretty special, to be honest. You walk out for warm-ups and the atmosphere is already there. First whistle atmosphere is incredible,” he added. “Obviously, it's a special occasion for the club, special occasion for the fans, but at the same time everyone else kind of feeds off of that.”

“We had a great start; it felt like a special first 45 minutes and after that you’ve got a 4-0 lead. You never want to be in a coasting mode, we got in a little bit of [that] in the second half, but it was a great performance all around,” Bono continued. “Really happy that we're able to keep a clean sheet tonight, too. It's a great team defensive performance. Exciting first half, grinded it out in the second half; I think we got what we deserved today.”

It didn’t take long for the added quality to show.

Inside of two minutes, Criscito forced a corner kick after linking up neatly with Insigne and Kaye on the left. Insigne’s delivery found Osorio at the back-post, but his touch was off-target. It was a warning, an early sign of intent.

It was poetic, in some sense, that Osorio and Bradley scored the first goals of the new era.

Bradley’s second in particular was a marvellous play.

“We were able to step up in a good way,” he recounted. “We had a bunch of guys around the ball and we were able to win it and make a few quick passes. Obviously the little flick from Lorenzo is such a good ball. At that point, there was some space and so I was able to get in the box and find a way to put it in.”

“It's a lot of what we want to be as a team: going after the ball quickly, getting guys around the ball, winning it and then playing forward quickly, using tight connections to be dangerous right away,” Bradley outlined. “More than my part, I look at it from the part that says it's a real team goal, in terms of how we want to play.”

Added Insigne: “It's the type of action that I really like. He was great in finalizing [it] into a goal.”

In a team game, the quality of one player brings out the talents of another.

“Football is football all the world,” said Bernardeschi. “When I start the game, I think only football. And when the team plays good, the personality of the single player is most brought up.”

Bono was pleased to see his captain net a brace, his first since opening day to the 2019 season against the Philadelphia Union.

“Turning back the clock a little bit, huh? A little header, a little splitting defenders and dinking over the keeper,” he summarized. “I was happy for him. He's a great performer. He's our captain. He's our heartbeat. And for him to go out and have a special night for himself was a statement for him and a statement for the rest of the guys that he's going to keep carrying us and everyone else is going to help get us to where we want to go.”

Those connections will only grow stronger. 

One play in the 25th minute exhibited the next-level thinking of the newcomers: without a word, Insigne lofted a corner kick high to the back-post where Bernardeschi was waiting. His volley screwed wide, but the intent was there.

“Me and Lorenzo, we played together many times in the national team, for 10 years,” Bernardeschi explained, with the help of the translator. “We look at each other and we understand each other.”

Not lost in the occasion was that Saturday also saw Kaye make his home debut in TFC colours and Doneil Henry come on for the second half after his return to the club was announced on Friday.

With the final of the 2022 Canadian Championship and 12 MLS matches remaining there is a lot of football left to be played. 

One game down, on to the next one.

“The first half was great, we played a great game. There's still a long road ahead,” reminded Insigne. “I like how I played, even if I didn't [score] any goals; I'm here for the team, to make more of the type of assist that I did. I'm really happy with the result.”

TFC hit the road for their next three – at Vancouver on Tuesday in a clash to lift the Voyageurs Cup, next Saturday at the New England Revolution, and the following weekend against Nashville SC – but BMO Field will be eagerly anticipating the next home date on August 13 when the Portland Timbers come to town.

Can’t wait. There are more memorable nights to come.

“Playing here is so special,” said Michael Bradley. “The atmosphere, the feel inside the stadium. Our fans, the relationship that the team has with the fans. I swear there's no stadium in the league with a home field advantage like this.”

“We've missed it over the last few years,” he continued. “And so to get back here this year and to have a few too many games slip away from us so far this season here, that part is frustrating, but when we can walk out into a stadium like tonight, feel the energy with the team that we have on the field, it's a big advantage.”