BEDAKIAN: As Bernardeschi rues lack of ideas, another one emerges – leaving Toronto FC
Have you seen the video of Domenico Criscito's final bow yet?
The long-tenured, thrice-returning son of Genoa – who infamously announced his retirement from football at the end of Toronto FC's 2022 MLS season only to go straight back to Italy and unretire a month or so later – stepped into a heated 3-3 clash against Bari in the 93rd minute, a chance to bid supporters of his boyhood club ciao, arrivederci one last time, and with literally the last swing of his boot in pro football, scored a 95th-minute penalty to win the match and send the crowd into hysterics.
As those Genoa fans beamed on with pride and his teammates swarmed him, Criscito must have felt equal measures of jubilation and sadness, the final verse of his playing days now written into legend.
But he also probably felt relieved. At least that wasn't his final game.
Domenico Criscito scores a 94th minute penalty with the last kick of his professional playing career sealing the win for Genoa who gained promotion to Serie A a few weeks prior 👏 👏🇮🇹#TFCLive pic.twitter.com/fcwsb24HQR— Daniel Ayik (@ayik_daniel) May 20, 2023
That, of course, being an utterly forgettable 1-0 loss to Miami to round out his short tenure at Toronto FC, having no sooner come into Major League Soccer alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi before deciding he'd had quite enough and bowing out.
Now, you'd be forgiven if shades of Jerry Seinfeld waxing on about taking vs. keeping reservations come to mind: Is it really retiring if you go right back to playing a few weeks later? Criscito certainly knows how to announce a retirement, but he's not so good at the hanging up his boots part – and really, isn't that the most important part of retirement?
I digress. It matters not. The 36-year-old Italian defender has more than earned his one last moment in the sun. A hearty congratulations and farewell to him for a career well-played.
Still, one has to wonder... if Criscito had a little bit more football left in him, why did he not want to stay at Toronto FC?
Well... it doesn't take much to see why.
'We don't have ideas on how to play football'
These are some dark, dark days at BMO Field.
Onlookers wisened and new alike can plainly see clear issues at Toronto FC. They see flailing arms and pained expressions and long spells of poor results and point, naturally, to lack of belief, lack of spirit, lack of bravery and fight, lack of talent and skill and commitment, lack of cohesion and chemistry, lack of vision and hope, lack of leadership and confidence, lack of charm and flair, lack of an identity, lack of a system, lack of patience, lack of atmosphere, lack of progress.
In short, a lack of seemingly everything you need to win football games and trophies ... but they're not lacking in star power or money spent.
Between Insigne and Bernardeschi, and Canadian internationals Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea, there’s a lot of reasons to believe this Toronto FC team is a contender… at least, on paper, and certainly when it comes to that wage bill (if you haven't heard, Toronto FC outspends every single team that beats them each week by a considerable margin).
Still, now sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference and having bowed out of the 2023 Canadian Championship in the first of back-to-back defeats to CF Montréal, it's safe to say that any on-paper analysis is dead in the water. Don't take my word for it, though – here's what Bernardeschi had to say of his side after Toronto succumbed to yet another miserable defeat, this time to Austin with a last-gasp concession.
"We don't play. We play long pass. We don't have ideas (on how to) play," he explained. "But I'm proud of my team, because every player put everything out onto the field, and this is everything to me. Unfortunately, we lost the game again, and this, for me, is no good. This city, the fans, nobody deserves this. I think, maybe, we need to change something. We need a little bit more tactics. We need an idea on how we play, because this is a real problem for me. It's impossible to play like this when we play without ideas. This is a big, big problem for me."
And then there’s this one, where Bernardeschi says the team doesn’t have an “idea of football.” pic.twitter.com/Dbie4qzKKB— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) May 21, 2023
No kidding. Asked what the reason for these problems was, the former Juventus man offered:
"We don't have a structure in the game. When a player has the ball, we don't know how to pass the ball. This is the real problem. We don't train this. We lose every game, we tie, we lose, we tie, we lose. I can't believe this, sincerely. This is not good for the young players. They need to get better and grow up with an idea about football, and the players with personality, they need to help understand and follow that idea. But first, we need that idea. This is the real situation."
Bernardeschi's comments are extremely telling. A lack of an identity, lack of ideas, lack of executionable tactics on the field, all because Toronto FC doesn't even practice them in training – that's footballer speak for "this coach isn't getting the job done, can we get someone in who knows what they're actually doing, please?"
Let's talk about Bob Bradley, shall we?
Successful in MLS? Sure, and more than once, if you count his building of LAFC on his resume.
Successful elsewhere? Kind of, yeah. Certainly on the international level with the U.S. men’s national team and, arguably, with Egypt during a time of massive political change within the nation.
But underneath each of Bob Bradley's 'successes' is an obvious question: How much of that success can be attributed to this coach ... and, naturally, the follow up: Could those teams have been even better, too?
In the case of LAFC, the answer was clear: Yes, they could indeed, and they did indeed get better after Bob Bradley left, winning an MLS Cup for those marked improvements in 2022. And, as fans of Swansea City found out when their new manager was sacked after 85 days at the helm, life was better after Bob Bradley, too.
Here’s what the Welsh club had to say about Bradley, at the time:
"We are sorry to lose Bob after such a short period of time. Unfortunately things haven't worked out as planned and we felt we had to make the change with half the Premier League season remaining. Personally, I have nothing but praise for Bob. He is a good man; a good person who gave everything to the job. His work-rate is phenomenal and we wish him well for the future.”
Such high praise, you’ve got to wonder why they sacked him in the first place, no? Maybe it had to do with the near-immediate pick-up in results the club enjoyed after he departed, before they rounded out their 2016-17 season with a five-game undefeated streak.
One must now wonder how much longer Bill Manning and co. can afford to wait before making a change, too. We're in year two of Toronto's second Italian renaissance but this one is remarkably less Sebastian Giovinco-y than the first. Silverware this season is almost certainly off the table, and Toronto's next conceivable shot at Concacaf Champions League football would come all the way in 2025.
Lorenzo Insigne didn't even suit up this weekend. Where was he? He wasn't listed as injured, either.
That brings us right back to Criscito, and the 7.5 million dollar (per year) question: How much longer will this go on?
Perception vs. Reality in Toronto
In 2017, Toronto FC captured the imagination of a city hungry for glory and crafted what remains to this day as, perhaps, the greatest team in MLS history to lift the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. By the midpoint of 2018, they had harrowingly survived one of the toughest Champions League gauntlets an MLS team has ever faced, defeating both Club America and Tigres UANL en route to a spot in the final, where they agonizingly lost to Chivas on penalties.
All that footage, all those headlines and newspaper clippings and photos and videos of parades and Jozy Altidore's drunken shenanigans and Giovinco's jaw-dropping goals and BMO Field packed to the rafters with loud, passionate supporters – all of that was certainly there to be witnessed when the Toronto FC staffer plugged in his laptop to pull up the powerpoint presentation that would sell both Insigne and Bernardeschi on moving to Canada.
(And, probably, to Criscito, too).
That vision – coupled with a metric $@%*-tonne of cash – was the bill of goods the two Italian internationals were sold.
They likely came to Toronto with an expectation of what needed to be done still, of course, but at its core, this was an organization that had proven they could get this formula right. If Giovinco could do it, surely Insigne could, no?
But MLS has changed. And so too has Toronto. Long gone is the attitude and confidence and cohesion and grit and talent that made the 2017 team so memorable – and so ruthlessly effective across Concacaf.
Instead, Insigne and Bernardeschi (and Criscito) were sold a Ferrari with the engine of a Fiat.
Now, part of that is on them. The two have performed well below individual expectations. There were times, particularly early-on in Giovinco's own Toronto FC tenure, where it was clear the team didn't have their identity and patterns of play and attacking ideas down 100 percent, either. And, in those days, Giovinco had the uncanny ability to put the team on his diminutive back and carry them to victory.
Insigne and Bernardeschi (and Criscito) have done that, too, but far too sparingly, and to be honest, Toronto FC's best days came only when it became clear that Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour and Mark Delgado and Benoit Cheyrou and Osorio all stepped their own games up, so until Mark-Anthony Kaye and co. can do the same here, it's unlikely this team is going to make much progress.
But the clock may also be ticking.
How would you even fix this team?
Let's assume a couple of things.
The first is that, at some point, maybe sooner than we'd think, Bob Bradley is mutually decision'd, and The Gregfather returns to Toronto. Or Jesse Marsch. Or whoever. Doesn't matter. The point is, a new coach is brought in, too.
The second is that that coach has at least a say in player personnel decisions, and can make a handful of moves this season.
Frankly, Toronto FC's tradeable asset warchest is looking a little emptier than usual, and apparently Osorio has secretly been a Designated Player this year, so there's not a whole lot to work with when it comes to moving pieces around on the proverbial chess board, as it were. But, for the sake of affording the new gaffer some leeway, let's also assume that there are a few trades left in Toronto FC's tank this year, too.
Now, you can go out and pick up a centre-back, or a defensive midfielder, or an actual striker who can score goals, and maybe that fixes things. But, again, back to Bernardeschi's point – this isn't a personnel issue. This is an ideas and vision issue.
So whoever comes in to replace Bradley has to first install those ideas. That's not a quick fix. So, consider the 2023 season a wash.
That takes us to our final assumption: It's 2024 or bust for Toronto. Sound familiar?
Speaking candidly, a lot of these heightened expectations were already earmarked for 2023. The Reds have vastly underperformed relative to those expectations and a new coach wouldn't be given the luxury of time – or, rather, of patience – to fix this slowly, either.
If things are still not clicking by 2024, then an even bigger issue presents itself.
And it's not pretty.
What comes next for the Italian duo?
While Napoli supporters line the streets in the hundreds of thousands to celebrate a historic achievement, their own son, Lorenzo Insigne, watched on from afar, as he toiled away for a team that wasn’t built to give him the tools to succeed. Ditto, Bernardeschi… but those checks are still coming in every month, in full.
Is this what Criscito saw? The writing on the wall? Perhaps, in the wisdom of his experience traversing the European continent, he could already see what TFC supporters bear witness to today; something isn’t right here. It’s not clicking as it should.
And it’s a thought Insigne and Bernardeschi must have certainly pondered once or twice this season, too.
Now, one hopes that superstar footballing professionals would act exactly like that: Professionals, contracted to help make the team better, to give it their very best, to try their hardest to lead this team to victory and glory and silverware. And, they may very well be consummate professionals.
But in those private moments, away from the training grounds? In the comfort of your homes, among trusted advisors and friends and agents? Does the question not get uttered?
While the narrative surrounds managerial changes and striker options and trading away Canadians who go on to thrive elsewhere and the staggering disparity between Toronto FC’s wage bill, the debate Insigne and Bernardeschi are probably having in their own circles is whether all of this is even worth it.
Not financially, obviously. The two are being paid a handsome sum each, certainly more than they’d get elsewhere. They can literally sit on their hands and collect their cheques and see out their playing days with one final payout, if not one final shot at glory.
But Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s European return with Serie A outfit AC Milan was a resounding success … and Napoli wouldn’t turn Insigne away at the gate should he return, hat in hand and eager to help out for the celebration tour of 2023-24. Plus, Bernardeschi could easily find a number of European outfits, Italian or otherwise, interested in his signature – if not a trade within MLS, too, should he desire it.
You can’t fault ‘em for thinking about it, just like you can’t fault Criscito for doing something about it.
So they're just going to leave?
Well... yeah. That seems like the natural conclusion here.
This isn't what they signed up for.
And it'll be a lesson to the rest of MLS, too, on why you don't spend literally millions of dollars on two players and stick them into a team that isn't really a team filled with pro players of which half aren't exactly seasoned pros, and expect everything to just work. Not anymore, anyways. MLS has grown up. You need to build a strong foundation first, and supplement with star-power to get you over the top.
The next time Toronto FC approaches a player, they're not going to be able to wine and dine and dazzle with imagery of 2017, either. Nor will they be able to sweep the Italians under the rug like they did Jermain Defoe before them. This Bloody Big Deal will make the rounds and agents and players will be much warier for it.
It's not all doom and gloom. Maybe a new coach comes in and gets it right straight out of the gate, or very quickly realizes what's missing, goes out and gets it, and that missing piece brings the rest of the orchestra into blissful harmony. It's football. The ball is round. Anything can happen.
But if that's not the case here... then be prepared for choppier seas ahead, Toronto FC fans.
It's always darkest before the dawn.