Led by Italian infantry, a reloaded Toronto FC club rolls over Charlotte FC

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The addition of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi to the Toronto FC roster on Saturday night was more than just a boost for Toronto FC. It was as if the club had been zapped with a high-powered defibrillator made in Italy.

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The revitalized Reds – buoyed by the addition of Serie A trio of Insigne, Bernardeschi and Domenic Criscito – crushed MLS expansion club Charlotte FC 4-0 in front of a grateful and electric crowd of 29,067 spectators at BMO Field. The win ended a five-game winless streak – and two games lost – by TFC.

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“It was so wonderful, the fans were fantastic,” Bernardeschi said of his first game in front of the BMO Field faithful.

“Today for me – and for the team – is a special day. We are starting the first game together and we are playing good football. So I am very happy for (the victory) and for my first goal and my first assist in MLS.

Insigne, the club’s $45million man, received a rousing ovation when he was introduced before the game. Saturday was the first time the three Italians played together on the pitch for Toronto.

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“I did not expect such a welcome from the fans during this first match. And it was definitely very emotional and I hope to return the love to the fans with my on-court play,” Insigne added, through an interpreter. “I liked the way I played, even though I didn’t score.”

It was the first game at BMO Field for Charlotte, and North Carolina probably would have done better to miss their flight to TO The Reds scored all four goals in the first half, including two from Michael Bradley and singles from Jonathan Osorio and Bernardeschi. Bradley, lined up alongside fellow midfielder Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye, played with a certain spring in his step.

Going into the game, the Reds were eight points out of a playoff spot with six teams to go and just 13 games to go. A winning streak is an absolute must if TFC has any chance of making the playoffs and if Saturday’s game is any indication, reaching the playoffs might not be that long.

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Insigne, 31, who signed a four-year deal with TFC this year after 11 seasons at Napoli, showed his attacking skills on the left side of the pitch every time he touched the ball, creating plenty of scoring chances with smart passes and dangerous runs in the Charlotte end. He collected an assist on Bradley’s second goal. Longtime Juventus man Bernardeschi, playing on the right wing, was also brilliant, scoring and registering an assist. Newly signed Kaye had two assists.

“I felt a bit tired, but I felt good too. It’s been a long time since my last game, but the more time passes, the fitter I feel,” said Insigne, who last played on May 22.

As TFC took on the Vancouver Whitecaps on the West Coast on Tuesday night in the 2022 Canadian Championship Final, Bradley replaced Insigne and Bernardeschi out of Saturday’s game after the first half.

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Canadian national team centre-back Doneil Henry, who signed on Friday, came on in the second half to replace Shane O’Neill, who appeared to suffer a knock midway through the first 45 minutes.

What pleased Coach Bradley as much as his side’s attacking explosion was that the Reds recorded their first clean sheet of the 2022 season. Ahead of Saturday’s game, TFC played 29 games straight in MLS while allowing at least one goal, tying the third-longest regular season in league history (Tampa Bay 2000-01).

All three of TFC’s centre-backs – the team’s so-called Achilles’ heel – played well, O’Neill, Henry and especially Lukas MacNaughton.

Osorio’s goal came in the fourth minute when a Charlotte defender tried to clear him and kicked the ball over Osorio’s leg and into the goal.

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In the 10th minute, Bradley scored another corner when he converted a Bernardeschi cross into goal with a well-placed header into the far corner just outside the box.

The game slowed considerably after early TFC goals as Charlotte regrouped, although Jesus Jimenez scored a third for Toronto in the 28th minute when sent off alone. But the game was ruled offside.

Bernardeschi scored in the 31st minute when he received a pass from Kaye just yards from the box and launched a left-footed bomb into the far corner. Shortly after, TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made his first good save of the game on a header from near Charlotte’s Kamil Jozwiak.

Bradley’s second goal came in added time of the first half when he caught a back heel pass from Insigne, split Charlotte’s back line and kicked a right kick into the bottom corner left.

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With Insigne and Bernardeschi offside to start the second half, Charlotte went forward. But 20 minutes into the second half, Charlotte defender Christian Fuchs pulled Toronto striker Jayden Nelson down to stop the 19-year-old from going on a breakaway, prompting the referee Filip Dujic to deliver a red card to the captain of Charlotte. The foul came minutes after visiting coach Christian Lattanzio received a yellow. Dujic then slapped Lattanzio with a second yellow as frustration peaked for the visiting team. In her first season in MLS, Charlotte certainly wasn’t slack, recording 26 points in the club’s first 22 games.

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