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Italian stars show off their skills as Toronto FC hammers Charlotte FC

Toronto FC fans showed Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne a lot of love in their MLS debut Saturday. And the Italian newcomers repaid them in spades.

Bernardeschi scored one goal and set up another and Insigne collected a stylish assist as Toronto celebrated its new Italian star power with a 4-0 romp over expansion Charlotte FC.

“It felt pretty special, to be honest,” said Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono.

“A really really big night,” added captain Michael Bradley. “You could feel it driving in. You got the sense over the last few days it was going to shape up to be a special night. And it was in every way.”

Bradley, who had 14 goals in his previous 258 MLS games, scored twice with Jonathan Osorio adding a single. Mark-Anthony Kaye had two assists as TFC led 4-0 at halftime.

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Insigne and Bernardeschi came off at the break, with an eye to their fitness and Tuesday’s Canadian Championship final in Vancouver. Job done and money well spent as TFC scored four goals in the first half of an MLS game for the first time in franchise history.

Read more: Toronto FC ready to roll out its newly acquired Italian star power against Charlotte

There was a party-like atmosphere at BMO Field thanks to anticipation over the two Italians’ debut. Attendance was announced as a sellout of 29,067, well above the average of 23,676 over the previous 11 home matches this season.

“I was very pleased. I didn’t expect such a welcome from the fans in this first home game ? I hope to return the love to the fans with my game on the field and also in the future,” Insigne said through an interpreter.

“So wonderful. The fans are fantastic. Wow,” Bernardeschi added in English. “Today for me and for the team is a special day.”

It was as if someone had turned the ‘On’ switch on the Toronto season. But at 6-12-4, the road back to respectability is a long one. Toronto entered weekend play in 13th spot in the 14-team Eastern Conference, five places and seven points below Charlotte (8-12-2).

“A really good start,” said Toronto coach Bob Bradley.

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“I think I said one game we’re not Barcelona yet, that’s for sure. We’re still not,” he added, ever the realist.

But there was plenty to celebrate on the night. Toronto had not posted a shutout in league play since a scoreless draw in Colorado on Sept. 25, 2021, conceding goals in 29 straight matches.

The home side came out with renewed energy with the backing of a loud crowd. Toronto led 2-0 after 10 minutes on goals by Osorio and Bradley.

Bernardeschi made it 3-0 in the 31st minute with an elegant left-footed strike from outside the penalty box that beat goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina en route to the corner of the goal. The former Juventus winger punched the air in jubilation and was swarmed by his new teammates.

According to Opta, the 28-year-old Bernardeschi is the first player to record a goal and an assist before halftime of his first MLS appearance since Fredy Montero for Seattle in 2009. He also joined Alejandro Pozuelo, who was traded to make room for the Italian, as the only TFC player to score a goal and register an an assist in his MLS debut.

Insigne played provider in first-half stoppage time, deftly flicking the ball to an onrushing Bradley after Osorio dispossessed a Charlotte player. Bradley, who also scored two goals against Philadelphia in the 2019 season opener, steamed past a defender and chipped the ‘keeper for a 4-0 lead.

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Read more: Former Juventus winger Federico Bernardeschi happy for new beginning with Toronto FC

It was the first time Charlotte had conceded four goals in a game in league play.

The second half was less notable without the two Italian wingers. Charlotte began to string passes together and the contest was far more even.

But things went from bad to worse for the visitors in the 65th minute when captain Christian Fuchs was shown a straight red card for cynically dragging Jayden Nelson down as the teenager outpaced him with only the goalkeeper to beat. Charlotte was irate that Toronto defender Doneil Henry had not been sanctioned immediately before for a hard tackle on Kamil Jozwiak in the Toronto penalty box.

In the uproar that followed, referee Filip Dujic showed the Charlotte bench a yellow card twice. Interim coach Christian Lattanzio had already been cautioned but remained on the touchline

Toronto finished with 10 men with Kaye having to leave the field injured and Bob Bradley out of substitutions. Defender Shane O’Neill also had to come off at halftime after taking a knock.

The 31-year-old Insigne started on the left side of the Toronto attack with Bernardeschi on the right and Spanish forward Jimenez in the middle.

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Insigne, while still finding his fitness, showed a touch of class with almost every possession, be it a little flick or full-blooded cross.

It was Caribbean Carnival Night at BMO Field but the flavour was definitely Italian. There was a throng outside the players’ entrance with Insigne signing autographs as he made his way in — and a palpable buzz inside the lakeside venue.

Fans arrived inside to find Insigne flags, emblazoned with Il Magnifico and the Italian’s trademark heart goal celebration sign, on their seat. And the Italian received a warm reception as he came out for warm-up and an even louder one when he was announced before kickoff.

The fans had more to cheer about with a Toronto goal in the fourth minute, with Osorio — back in the lineup after clearing concussion protocols — in the right place at the right time as Guzman Carujo’s attempt at a penalty box clearance ricocheted off the Canadian midfielder into the back of the net. It was Osorio’s sixth of the season and his 55th for TFC in all competitions.

It also ended a 199-minute Toronto scoring drought. TFC had failed to score in seven of its previous 12 matches.

Read more: Toronto FC adds more star quality with Italian Federico Bernardeschi

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Two minutes later, Bernardeschi fired just wide. The Italian played provider in the 10th minute, with Bradley flicking in his corner with a fine header from the near post for his second goal of the season. Both were headers, unlike his previous 13 career MLS scores.

A Jimenez goal in the 29th minute was called back because of an offside call.

Henry came on at the start of the second half, kicking off his second stint with Toronto.

TFC outshot Charlotte 15-11 on the night but the visitors had a 5-4 edge in shots on target. Thirteen of Toronto’s shots, including all on target, came in the first half.

Insigne, the former Napoli captain, and Bernardeschi arrived during the league’s secondary transfer window, which opened July 7. Both were out of contract with Insigne signing a pre-contract with TFC in January.

Insigne’s debut was delayed by a calf issue while Bernardeschi only arrived July 15. Fellow Italian Domenico Criscito made his fourth appearance Saturday at left back, coming off in the 76th minute.

Insigne’s four-year deal makes him the highest-paid player in MSL. Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri had held top spot on the pay scale at US$8.15 million this season.

Toronto’s backline remains a work in progress with Kosi Tompson (US$70,760) lining up alongside Lukas MacNaughton (US$86,100), Shane O’Neill (US$358,000) and Criscito, the former Genoa captain whose salary has yet to be disclosed by the MLS Players Association.

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The game marked the first meeting between Toronto and Charlotte.

Read more: San Jose scores late to earn tie and hand Toronto FC another painful lesson

Toronto was coming off consecutive road losses to Montreal (1-0) and Chicago (2-0) in league play. It was winless in five (0-4-1) and had registered just two victories in its previous 14 outings (2-10-2).

Charlotte arrived one point out of the playoffs thanks in large part to a healthy home record (7-3-0). It has struggled on the road at 1-9-2, with the lone win coming July 3 in Houston.

Charlotte has conceded two or more goals in nine of 12 road games, compared to just once in its 10 home games

Charlotte was coming off a friendly win over England’s Chelsea, prevailing in a penalty shootout after the game finished knotted at 1-1 before 52,673 at Bank of America Stadium.

Toronto was without injured goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, midfielder Noble Okello and centre back Chris Mavinga.

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