Toronto FC hope for Lorenzo Insigne splash but fixing defensive woes must remain the priority

While his signing has been official for a whileLorenzo Insigne will finally be eligible to feature for Toronto FC on July 9 versus the San Jose Earthquakes after leaving Napoli on a free transfer. On paper, Insigne could be one of the best signings in the history of Major League Soccer as the 31-year-old has made 433 appearances for the Serie A side, scoring 121 goals and assisting 95 more. But he’s entering his biggest challenge yet in the midst of Toronto’s rebuilding season.

After Toronto’s 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew on Tuesday, Bob Bradley’s team sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with a 5-3-9 record. The playoffs are certainly in reach as they’re only six points behind the seventh-place New England Revolution, but this team has struggled in a big way this season. They’ll also have to jump five teams to make the playoffs. They are also just four points clear of the Eastern Conference cellar.

When Bradley joined the team in 2021, it was clear that Toronto would need a rebuild, and they hope it is one that Insigne will accelerate. Bradley has had to be flexible with formations this season, starting the year in a back three while also shifting to a 4-2-3-1, but Toronto have most recently played in a 4-4-2. Insigne is naturally a left-sided attacking midfielder, but he is also comfortable sitting centrally behind a forward, occupying space that has mostly been dominated by Alejandro Pozuelo. 

Before we can get to the attack, the biggest issue with Toronto needs to be addressed, and that’s their defensive shape. No matter who Bradley lines up, the defense has been horrid, leaving Alex Bono to hopefully clean things up. Darlington Nagbe’s goal for the Crew is an example of these defensive struggles.

Toronto had a two-man advantage at the beginning of the play, and while they retreat to get back into a decent defensive position, Michael Bradley can’t keep up with Lucas Zelarayan. Also, no one tracks Jacen Russell-Rowe’s run. By the time Zelarayan gets him the ball, it’s already too late. 

Insigne isn’t a defensive liability, but he also won’t help with tracking issues deeper in midfield where Michael Bradley is required to cover too much space. Bob Bradley is aware of this, which is why Domenico Criscito is also joining on a free transfer from Genoa.  

While the team was relegated and Criscito left on a free transfer after, he was an anchor in a defense that turned around in a big way under Alexander Blessin. On his signing, Bradley pointed out that he can bring versatility and a veteran presence to one of the youngest defenses in Major League Soccer. Defensive improvement will be important because, without that, there will be more pressure on Insigne’s shoulders. The San Jose Earthquakes are the only team in MLS who have allowed more goals than Toronto’s 32. TFC have also allowed the most shots out of any team with 98, which is helping keep Bono busy.

As the highest-paid player in MLS history, all eyes will be on every move that Insigne makes. His last season with Napoli shows that he has more than enough left in the tank as he scored 11 goals, assisting nine more. But he is also a player who is comfortable taking a back seat to make those around him better. Insigne will need to be given time as he transitions to Canada, while also learning English, but Michael Bradley and Criscito knowing Italian will help that transition.

If the defense doesn’t improve, that’s where things get interesting, but Toronto can look to the Eastern Conference-leading CF Montreal to see that a dynamite attack can cover up the defensive woes. It hasn’t been pretty at times, but Montreal have scored 32 goals while conceding 29. With Jesus Jimenez, who has eight goals on the season, and Pozuelo, who has scored four goals and assisted four goals, Insigne will have plenty of help putting the ball in the back of the net.

Making the playoffs would be a success for Toronto this season and is likely the minimum expectation for Bradley. But even if they miss out, showing progress in the second half of the season will go a long way, not only helping the young players on the team grow but also when it comes to being able to sell their project to new additions next season. 

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