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When Toronto FC signed Premier League striker Jermain Defoe in 2014, the ad campaign featured the slogan: ‘It’s a Bloody Big Deal.’ With long-time Italy and Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne arriving in Toronto on Friday, the new campaign might be: ‘It’s a bloody big gamble.’
In fact, it’s a huge, colossal gamble. This is no ordinary Major League Soccer signing. It’s the most lucrative MLS contract of all time – four years at reportedly $15 million per season.
To say there is a ton of pressure on Insigne – and TFC – would be a massive understatement. Always one of the highest-spending teams in MLS, with a strong, loyal fan base, the Reds have struggled the last two seasons and attendance has dropped. And though new coach Bob Bradley has the injury-depleted squad playing better soccer than last season, the club is still sitting outside of a playoff spot this season and has continued to struggle defensively. And as TFC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg told the Toronto Sun last week, soccer isn’t basketball. One player can’t control the outcome of a game. But an exceptional player can enhance a team in many ways and that’s what TFC is hoping for from the 31-year-old forward Insigne, long one of the best players in Italy’s Serie A.
There has yet to be an official announcement, but it’s likely that TFC will introduce Insigne at a media conference on Friday. The Secondary Transfer Window opens on July 7 so Insigne’s first game for TFC would be July 9 when the San Jose Earthquakes visit BMO Field – if he’s healthy and ready to play. (The Naples native missed the recent Finalissima with a ‘relatively small calf issue’). Insigne will not play in the July 2 match against the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field. (Genoa left back Domenico Criscito is also expected to join TFC this summer).
But before the diminutive dynamo suits up for TFC, the Reds have to deal with four games over the next 11 days, starting with the 2022 Canadian Championship semi-final on Wednesday night against arch-rivals CF Montreal at BMO Field. The boys from La Belle Province have to be considered the favourites. Montreal (7W 6L 2D) sit eight points above Toronto (4W 8L 3D) in the MLS standings and have gone unbeaten in their last four head-to-head matchups with a record of 3-1-0 with the last one winning them the 2021 Voyageurs Cup.
“Solid team,” said Bradley of Montreal. “Good way of playing where they are organized, they’ve got different ways to go forward, they’re a threat attacking set pieces. Football-wise, they’ve got some talented, skillful players. They’re also a team that has a strong, physical dimension. Solid team.”
Montreal has a potent, balanced attack. Midfielder Djordje Mihailovic is having a great season with seven goals and four assists. Forward Romell Quioto has five goals and two assists. Forward Kei Kamara and midfielder Joaquín Torres both have three goals. In 15 MLS matches, Montreal has scored seven more goals than Toronto (28-21) and given up two fewer (27-29). Canadian national team defenders Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller anchor the backline.
First-year striker Jesus Jimenez leads Toronto’s attack with seven goals, with three assists, though he hasn’t scored in his last eight games in all competitions. Alejandro Pozuelo has four goals and Jonathan Osorio three for the Reds.
TFC has won a record eight Canadian Championships while Montreal has won five, the second-most. Five times the two sides have faced each other for the Voyageurs Cup. The Reds have the rare chance to win two Voyageurs Cups in one year, having beaten CPL giants Forge FC in penalty kicks on June 4 to win the 2020 Canadian Championship which was postponed for two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We got a taste of being in the Final and we spoke about the importance of that, what it means to the players’ career, how it helps young players develop, what it means to the fans to be in the Final,” said Bradley.
The winner of Wednesday’s match will play the winner of the other semi between the Vancouver Whitecaps and York United FC at BC Place.
A couple of injured TFC players returned to play in Toronto’s 2-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls last Saturday – centre back Shane O’Neill and full back Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty. Bradley said on Tuesday that midfielder Jonathan Osorio and defender Chris Mavinga are also back in full training and are available for Wednesday’s match. However, with all the games coming up, the coach isn’t sure if he’s going to play all his regular starters against Montreal.
“The roster for Cup matches is 18,” said Bradley. “So we’ve got actually some tough decisions to make (as to who will be in the lineup). Oso and Chris are both back in training and available and then we’ll have to decide, when we put together 18, how many minutes they can play – does it work for this game? Or are we going to move past this game and think more about the stretch of games coming up? But it’s really good to see both back in training. In this next stretch (of games), they’ll both be counted on.”
TFC has struggled big-time over the last two seasons, so it’s certain that Bradley has put a high priority on winning Wednesday’s match and advancing to the CC final.
“Over the years you know that the pressure is in the (CC) semifinals is always really great. This game takes on just that extra level of everything because it’s not only Montreal, but it’s this idea that you have to get in another final, you have to have chance to play for another Cup.”