Toronto FC coach says Bernardeschi was ‘out of line’ with post-game outburst

Toronto FC forward Federico Bernardeschi drives past Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley and Atlanta United midfielder Luiz Araújo during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Atlanta. (Alex Slitz/AP Photo)

Italian star Federico Bernardeschi’s emotional outburst after Toronto FC’s weekend 1-0 loss in Austin was “out of line,” says coach Bob Bradley.

“Fede was wrong for speaking that way after the game,” Bradley told The Canadian Press. “It was a tough loss, a late goal after we had defended in a really good way. So he was wrong to speak that way after the game, 100 per cent. And we’ve now discussed it inside the team. So (I) made it clear that that was out of line.”

Asked if the incident was now behind them, Bradley replied somewhat opaquely: “There’s a lot of work being done. The work every day in a tough period continues. So that’s where we are.”

The veteran coach, in his first public comments on Bernardeschi’s outburst, also suggested that the Italian could help the team in other ways than venting.

Bernardeschi seemingly took square aim at his coach in a virtual availability with media after the Austin loss, which dropped Toronto’s record to 2-5-7 in the Eastern Conference basement.

“We don’t play,” the Italian said in English. “We play long pass. We don’t have any idea to play.”

“I think this city, the fans, everybody, don’t deserve this,” he added. “And I think maybe we need to change something. We need a little bit more tactics. We need an idea how we play, because this is the real problem for me. It’s impossible to play like this when we play without (an) idea.”

For a team struggling on the field and already drawing plenty of negative chatter off it, it was an unwelcome bombshell.

“Look I understand the frustration that exists, with the players, with the fans,” said Bradley. “And as I keep saying, in a real way, I take the responsibility every day to think through — with the staff — the best way to message, the best way to then put training together, the best idea on how we need to play. So when I keep saying that’s the work, that’s what’s going on every day.”

Injury-ravaged Toronto, currently mired in a 404-minute scoring drought, is winless in its last four league outings (0-3-1) and has won just once in its last 11 outings (1-5-5) in all competitions. Toronto’s last goal came April 29, from CJ Sapong in a 1-0 win over visiting New York City FC.

Toronto was missing 10 players through injury or suspension for Saturday’s loss in Austin, an absentees list that included Insigne and fellow starters Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Sigurd Rosted.

“I think we had some good moments of good football but still I don’t think in the attack we’re anywhere near as efficient, as good, (as) effective as we need to be,” Bob Bradley said. “For the most part defensively, as a group, we’ve been better.”

Attack and defence go together, in Bradley’s book, however.

Insigne and Bernardeschi joined Toronto midway through the season last year, with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment digging deep into its pockets to secure the Italian stars in the hope that they will lead TFC out of the MLS wilderness

Insigne, who ranks second on the MLS pay list at US$7.5 million this season, has seven goals and two assists in 18 league appearances since joining the club. Bernardeschi, No. 4 on the salary scale at US$6.295 million, has 11 goals and six assists in 27 outings.

Both have shown flashes of their brilliance on the pitch. But Injuries and lack of depth in their supporting cast have not helped their cause.

Asked if it has been more difficult than expected in embedding the two Italians in the team, Bradley pointed at himself.

“I’ve said a few times that a huge part of my responsibility is to get the best out of those two,” he said. “I’ve also said we’re not where we need to be. The record’s not good enough. We’ve left points on the table. And as you know, I take always full responsibility. So the idea of how to take more out of them, yeah, that’s the work every day.”

Insigne, whose English is limited, remains somewhat of a mystery off the field. While he is said to display a good sense of humour among his teammates, he rarely meets the media, with an interpreter required when he does.

At times, his body language on the field — reminiscent of mercurial former TFC star Sebastian Giovinco — can speak volumes.

There has been speculation in some quarters that the former Napoli captain is not happy in Toronto.

“Lorenzo’s frustrated — with injuries and with still the work that’s being done to build our team,” said Bradley. “It hasn’t been easy for him. And part of what I do on a regular basis is try to find the right way to keep him going and help him. That’s the work, to connect those dots.”

That comes largely on the training field where Bradley says he and his staff try to set up sessions that have “as many game-like actions as possible” so his players have to make the right decisions in the game model they are trying to develop.

Some respond better than others. The hope is they see the benefits.

Bradley dismissed reports that he and Insigne were at loggerheads. He also shook his head at social media speculation that Insigne had travelled to Austin but had refused to play, calling it “100 per cent false.”

On Friday, during a light training session before the flight to Austin, Bradley said Insigne felt something from the midweek 0-0 draw with the New York Red Bulls.

“It was determined that he couldn’t travel. He went for an ultrasound. There was some fluid and some edema (swelling). Nobody thought it was serious. But no, he didn’t travel.”

Insigne subsequently returned to training Tuesday.

“I don’t know where the rest of it came from,” Bradley said, referencing the Insigne rumours. “But it was completely wrong.:

Unlike Insigne, Bernardeschi is not afraid to use his English and usually comes across like a kid who has consumed his body weight in candy when he meets reporters. He likes to share. Social media is his friend.

But on Saturday night, he was more glum than glamour. “We need the idea of football,” he lamented.

It seemed a direct shot at Bradley, a three-time MLS coach of the year who is no stranger to the idea of football.

Asked about the comment, Bradley replied: “In football people have different ideas. Not everybody sees the game the same way.” 

The 65-year-old Bradley challenges his players to identify opportunities and then take advantage of them.

“You are trying every day to get players to think faster, see things faster, execute faster and better. Not everybody sees the game that way but that’s how I believe you work,” he said “From the beginning with a guy like Fede, I showed him examples of Mohamed Salah (who Bradley coached with Egypt) and Carlos Vela (with Los Angeles FC), guys that play in the same position.” he added.

Bradley says he has worked with Bernardeschi “to create ideas of” how he can make runs and occupy better positions that lead to goal-scoring chances.

“If you look at the season, he’s still gotten the ball in many good spots. The numbers alone show that in those different moments, it hasn’t been as good as it can be. So that’s frustrating for him and that hurts the group. So you work through that, over and over. You continue to try to impress upon him the things that need to be better every day.

“And I’ll never stop trying to do that — with him and with everyone else. But again are some of those things different than he’s heard in the past? Maybe. But it seemed early on that in that regard that he saw some of those things.”

Bradley acknowledged he inherited a mess when he took over Toronto as head coach and sporting director in November 2021.

“There was a lot to undo,” he said. “And it’s not allowed us yet to have everything in a way that we could make some of the different moves that in a perfect world we would make. So we’ve worked as a group to be creative, to try to find ways to continue to move the team forward.”

Toronto hosts D.C. United (5-5-4) on Saturday.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.