A wizard on the pitch, Insigne poised to take MLS by storm for Toronto FC

Toronto FC President Bill Manning sits down with Sportsnet's Jesse Fuchs to talk about the signing of former Napoli captain and Italian international Lorenzo Insigne to the club

Sitting on a precarious 1-0 lead in a tightly contested quarter-final at Euro 2020 last summer, Italy was in need of another goal to give itself a bit of breathing room against top-ranked Belgium.

The Italians were looking for a moment of attacking inspiration, and it came just before halftime when Lorenzo Insigne set out on a majestic dribbling run that began inside his half, saw him cut in from the left and then curl a gorgeous shot from the edge of the penalty area into the far corner of the net that gave goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois no chance.

The Azzurri went on to defeat the Belgians, and Insigne’s thunderbolt strike stood out as one of the key goals in their march towards winning the European Championship. It was a moment of game-breaking genius from Insigne, but it was hardly a one-in-a-million type effort from the diminutive attacker. He had routinely scored such spectacular goals for hometown club Napoli in Serie A for over a decade that he earned the nickname Il Magnifico.

Toronto FC is betting big on Insigne being able to wield similar magic on the pitch in MLS after announcing Saturday that it has signed the Italian attacker to a four-year contract. Financial terms of the deal were not released by the Canadian club, but according to sources TFC broke the bank to the tune of $15 million US per season in order to land the Italian. Insigne not only becomes the highest-paid player in MLS history, but he shatters the record previously held by Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he earned $7.2 million with the LA Galaxy in 2019.

To put Insigne’s wages into further context, consider the following: TFC is spending more money per year just on Insigne than 21 MLS teams spent on their entire rosters in 2021. Only six clubs — Atlanta United, Inter Miami, LAFC, LA Galaxy, New York City FC and Toronto — paid more than $15 million on overall player salaries last year.

After a disastrous 2021 campaign that saw the Reds finish in second-last place in the league standings, the club had to swing for the fences this off-season as it rebuilt its roster. The signing of Insigne to this landmark deal is a major signal of intent that the club is serious about winning and reestablishing itself among the elite sides in MLS.

Of course, this is not the first time that TFC has looked to an Italian to help them reverse their fortunes.

The Reds were in a somewhat similar situation seven years ago when they signed Sebastian Giovinco away from Juventus in what turned out to be a transformative transfer move. The Italian striker quickly established himself in MLS, plundering 73 goals in 125 regular season and playoff games over four seasons, winning league MVP honours in 2015. The Reds had never qualified for the playoffs in their eight previous seasons, but with Giovinco at the helm they instantly went from league laughingstock to powerhouse, as they won MLS Cup in 2017 and finished runners-up the previous year.

TFC is hoping that Insigne will have the same groundbreaking effect that Giovinco had in MLS, and while comparisons between the two Italians are inevitable, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Insigne is the better player and could have a more lasting impact.

Giovinco was 27 years old when he came to MLS, while Insigne will turn 31 in June, so he had more of his career ahead of him when he signed with TFC. But Giovinco wasn’t a regular starter for Juventus or the Italian national team at the time.

Insigne, on the other hand, is widely regarded as one of the best attacking players in Italy’s Serie A, if not in all of European club soccer. He debuted for Napoli in 2010 and later became captain, and has been a fixture for his hometown club for the past decade, scoring 114 goals in all competitions, with his best Serie A season coming in 2020-21 when he bagged 19 times in Italy’s topflight. He has also been a mainstay for the Italian national team, scoring 10 goals in 53 appearances for the Azzurri since his debut in 2012, and played a major role in helping Italy win last summer’s European Championship.

Fleet of foot and a wizard with the ball at his feet, Insigne is also a threat to score from set pieces and is renowned for being a dynamic attacker who can unlock even the tightest of defences. Although left wing is his preferred position, the Italian can play in a variety of attacking positions, including as a deep-lying playmaker.

This is not a “Hollywood signing” by TFC. While David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba had more name recognition than Insigne, they came to the league on the downside of their respective careers, looking to cash in for one final payday before they entered retirement, while their MLS clubs were looking to capitalize on their brand power.

Insigne has name value, although not as much as the aforementioned trio. But what he does have over them at this stage of his career is the ability to be hugely relevant both on and off the pitch in MLS.

In essence, what Toronto FC is getting in Lorenzo Insigne is a UEFA Champions League calibre player who is still in his prime with plenty of gas left in the tank – a top European star who looks poised to take Major League Soccer by storm.

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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