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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Toronto FC’s signing of Lorenzo Insigne is another landmark moment for MLS

Toronto FC have signed big-name players before. Indeed, the Canadian club has made a habit of catching the eye with their transfer market activity. Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo have all played for TFC over the years, but Sebastian Giovinco’s arrival at BMO Field in 2015 still stands as the most significant signing they have ever made. Until now.

Lorenzo Insigne secured a move to Major League Soccer last Saturday, with Toronto FC offering the Italian international $11m-a-year over five-and-a-half seasons. This will make the 30-year-old the highest-paid Italian soccer player in the world – and the highest-paid MLS player ever.

Cynics say Insigne is only making this move for the money. MLS has long struggled to shake its reputation as a retirement league for the sport’s fading stars, but Insigne isn’t fading. In fact, he has rarely shined any brighter than he is now. It was only a matter of months ago that he started the Euro 2020 final for the eventual winners, Italy.

MLS has been home to several superstars. The arrival of David Beckham 15 years ago changed the landscape of North American soccer. Thierry Henry was a global icon when he signed for the New York Red Bulls while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka, Didier Drogba, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Villa have all played in the division.

In terms of his name recognition, Insigne doesn’t measure up to any of the aforementioned. However, there is a very strong argument that the Italian is playing at a higher current level than any other player to have pitched up in MLS before. Insigne could set a new precedent at the top of the North American game.

Seven goals and six assists in just 15 Serie A appearances this season paints the picture of a player operating at the peak of his powers. Napoli have enjoyed a successful first half of the 2021/22 campaign with Luciano Spalletti’s team just seven points off the pace being set by Inter, and Insigne has been key to this success.

Toronto FC are getting a player who will ask questions of MLS defences that have never been asked before. Giovinco scored 83 goals and registered 51 assists in just 142 games for the Canadian side. There’s good reason to believe Insigne will rack up even bigger numbers, with the striker operating at a higher level than Giovinco was when he signed for TFC.

Insigne’s switch to Toronto FC will provide another yardstick to measure the esteem North American soccer is held in outside Canada and the United States. Giovinco effectively gave up on his international career by signing for an MLS club seven years ago. Insigne has been an important member of the Italy national team in recent times, so will he be allowed to continue his international career as a TFC player?

Patience will be required at BMO Field with Insigne not expected to arrive until the end of the Serie A season in the summer. By that time, a significant chunk of the 2022 MLS campaign will have been played and Toronto FC will have to find a way to win matches without their big-money addition.

Not so long ago, the LA Galaxy were MLS’s most ambitious franchise with Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane all playing for the Carson club at the same time. They built a dynasty under Bruce Arena, once described by Keane as the “Sir Alex Ferguson of America.” Now, Toronto FC might well have taken over as MLS’s most ambitious franchise.

Bob Bradley, arguably the best North American coach right now, has been hired to lead the club. Another Italian international, Andrea Belotti, is also believed to be in talks over a summer switch to BMO Field. Toronto FC suffered a dismal 2021, finishing second bottom of the Eastern Conference, but they could be building something bigger and better than they have ever built before.

At this point in the league’s growth, Insigne’s arrival in MLS won’t move the needle much in terms of crowds and shirt sales. However, the Italian could set an example for other European players open to the idea of signing for an MLS club earlier in their career than previously would have been the case. Insigne’s arrival in the league could be another landmark moment in its development.

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