Since the inaugural MLS season in 1996 there have been a variety of inflections points. Moments where the league took a bold step forward.
Whether it was the first soccer-specific stadium, expansion, the arrival of David Beckham and the invention of the designated player rule, or any of the many other innovations that have propelled the game forward in North America, once a threshold has been crossed, there has been no looking back.
To categorize that evolution a short-hand has been developed. Those early years were MLS 1.0. Expansion and the DP era brought on MLS 2.0. And then the introduction of allocation money, rising salary caps, and owners willingness to spend on quality saw the birth of MLS 3.0.
MLS 4.0 may just have begun on Saturday when Toronto FC announced Loreno Insigne had signed for the upcoming season.
A star at SSC Napoli in the Italian Serie A, a European Champion with Italy at last summer’s UEFA Euro 2020, the 30-year-old winger will join TFC on July 1.
“Lorenzo is a transformational signing, not only for our club, for our league,” said Toronto FC President Bill Manning shortly after the announcement via a Zoom conference call. “This is a player in the prime of his career who just came off winning the European Championships, he's the captain of Napoli, currently third in Serie A in Italy, he came off an unbelievable season last year and has continued this year.”
“We've had a lot of famous players and amazing players come into this league, but a player with his credentials and of his calibre in the prime of his career, I'm not sure we've seen yet,” Manning added. “Here at MLSE we felt now was the time for our club, with the World Cup coming here in 2026, to bring a world class superstar to this club and to this league.”
The list of football giants who have graced pitches in MLS is long.
Even in those earliest days there were big names – Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos, Preki, Mo Johnston – and since Beckham’s arrival a steady stream of world-class players at the tail end of their careers have transited the league: Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka, Didier Drogba, David Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sebastian Giovinco, etc.
But few could be said to have been in the fullness of their prime.
Insigne had other options – recent rumours had tied him to Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United in the English Premier League. He chose Toronto FC and MLS.
“It's the next step for our league,” projected Manning. “[MLS] has grown to a point where a player like Lorenzo, a world class player in the prime of his career, is willing to come here and to play the next four seasons and potentially longer.”
“Other teams will take notice and I think that's where our league is going to go,” he predicted. “You've seen teams in our league purchase players for 10, 15, up to $20 million dollars. You've seen world class players come here, maybe a bit past their prime. I think now you're going to start to see players coming in their prime. The resources in this league are unparalleled across the world, in terms of our ownership, and so for me, it was the next step.”
In November, at the end of season media press conference, Manning referenced the beginning of a new five-year plan laid out for TFC, leading into the 2026 FIFA World Cup that will be played in North America.
Step one was Bob Bradley coming on as head coach and sporting director. Step two was a world-class star.
“[Insigne]was our number one target because we think everything he brings to the table is something that this fan base and this city crave,” levelled Manning. “Bob and I really, really think he is going to be our anchor as we rebuild this team.”
“For Lorenzo, we think he's going to come into Toronto and be welcomed with open arms by this community,” he anticipated. “His personality is going to fit very well with who we want to be as a club.”
“We want to be a champion and we know what he brings to the table,” Manning added. “He will be the anchor for this team over the next four seasons on how we're going to rebuild ourselves into a champion.”
Three moves have already been made official by TFC: the addition of Shane O’Neill as a free agent, the signing of Insigne, and the transfer of Richie Laryea to Nottingham Forest FC in the EFL Championship.
While Manning wouldn’t comment on any of the other rumours floating around, he did make one promise: “I do think it'll be busy. There will be a number of transactions that continue to come.”