Toronto FC is going to look a little bit different this weekend.
Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are in line to make their debuts for the club on Saturday at BMO Field against Charlotte FC.
“Yes, both are excited, everybody's excited, to get them going,” said Bob Bradley on Friday afternoon. “[We’ve had] a couple days of training to figure out exactly what it means in terms of minutes, things like that, but both of them are ready to go.”
Insigne has been patiently working towards this day for some time, Bernardeschi was only just announced last Friday and introduced this week, but having both in the fold has been a boost for TFC.
“It's been great in every way,” said Michael Bradley. “They have come in and established right away how excited they are to be here, what good people they are first and foremost, what good professionals they are, how serious they are and how motivated they are about being here.”
“And of course when training starts, you can see the quality, you can see the experience they have, the skill, the way that they can, just in a few short days, already raise the level of what we’re doing,” he continued. “We're really excited that they’re here.”
Bringing new players, new personalities, into a group can take time, of course. Bob Bradley and the rest of the club have been making sure everybody is on the same page to ease that process.
“The main thing you try to do as you bring players into the team, especially talented guys like that, is to make sure that everybody gets a sense of the things that they bring to the team. The spots that they go to look for the ball, some of the ideas when they get the ball, that both have qualities to make passes, move forward, create opportunities,” explained the TFC coach. “[That] both give us good options with set-pieces.”
“Everything in training has been adjusted this week to incorporate team ideas with what they bring, to highlight their characteristics in a way that others see what they're trying to do,” he continued. “If Lorenzo comes inside and gets the ball looking forward, there's got to be a sense of the type of runs he's looking for – that's an example. They bring quality, they bring experience. Right now you can tell how excited both of them are, so that's great for the group.”
New players, especially of the quality of Insigne and Bernardeschi, will bring new elements to the team. They will have license to play their game, but within the structure and ideas that TFC have been striving towards since Bob Bradley took the reins.
“It’s football, there's freedom,” he replied. “But freedom doesn't mean that guys just go wherever they want either. The ability, when you have talented wide attackers, for them to come inside, find the ball in good positions. There’s freedom, but it's freedom within an idea of how we play.”
“They're both very used to that. If you watch them when they play for Italy, it's not like both of them just run the field and do whatever they want. I don’t think [Roberto] Mancini would pick them if that was the case,” Bradley joked. “So you see this balance between freedom, finding space, but also playing within a team structure.”
It’ll be a historic day for the club, a special moment, but behind that excitement the coach is focused on the bottom line: continuing to make progress towards becoming a good team.
“I'm excited for the fans. I’m excited for the club, a lot of work has gone into this. Players are excited,” responded Bob Bradley, asked if he was excited for the occasion. “I'm always excited to see, on any given day, football-wise, can we just be a little bit sharper? A little bit better?”
“I've seen moments during the year where we see good things, but we know that it can be more consistent, it can be better,” he continued. “It's about making the football better in order to get the results. We all accept the fact that result-wise we're not where we need to be, but that's part of the work.”
Saturday’s match kicks off the next busy stretch of action as the MLS season continues.
TFC will play three games over the coming week to close July. Tuesday sees them cross the continent to contend with the Vancouver Whitecaps for the Voyageurs Cup in the final of the 2022 Canadian Championship and next Saturday has Toronto hit the road once more to face the New England Revolution.
There is a lot of football left to be played this season. Much is yet to be determined.
“One game at a time, that's where we are right now. That's the situation; that is the only way for us to approach things: one game at a time,” levelled Michael Bradley. “13 league games left, a cup final.”
“One game at a time, ready to step on the field and go after things and try to play our football and try to be the aggressor on the field and try to take all the things that we've been working on from day one in preseason and do them better, do them even now as we add in some of the new guys, and see where it all takes us,” he stressed. “More than that right now would be a waste of time.”
Up first is Saturday against Charlotte.
In their first season in MLS, the expansion side has impressed – they currently sit one point outside the playoff places in eighth-place in the Eastern Conference.
The departure of head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez at the end of May saw him replaced with former assistant coach Christian Lattanzio as interim for the remainder of the season.
Under his watch, Charlotte has continued to be a tough opponent.
A 93rd minute goal from Inter Miami CF denied them a share of the points on Saturday night, falling 3-2 in Florida, but a 4-1 home win over Nashville SC and a 2-1 result away to the Houston Dynamo has them coming to town in good form.
“You can see that they have a clear identity, a way of stepping up on teams, of strong positional play,” observed Bob Bradley. “They invert their fullbacks, play then with the six in front of them, so it becomes what a lot of teams do, some version of five and five. Their wingers stay wide and high, their eights are mobile, and then [Karol] Świderski is a classic nine.”
Świderski is tied with early-season addition Andre Shinyashiki with five goals for the team lead; midfielder Ben Bender tops the assist tally with five to his name through 20 appearances.
This will be the first-ever meeting between the clubs; the return fixture at Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina is set for August 27.
Currently on the outside looking in, with the Italian reinforcements ready to take to the pitch, anticipation is high in Toronto. Bob Bradley is leaning into that.
“We don’t temper expectations, we challenge the group, say, ‘Come on, there's points on the table. Let's go,’” he urged. “That's the way we are always thinking. In all ways, there's a lot to play for.”