On Monday, two days after a 91st-minute Gyasi Zardes goal in Austin sent Toronto FC to its fourth loss in six games, a group of veteran TFC players gathered on a conference call on their day off.
The call, according to multiple sources briefed by players who took part, included nine or 10 players and was led by the two highest-paid members of the team: Italians Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, the latter of whom told reporters on Saturday night after the loss that, “I think maybe we need to change something.”
Monday’s conversation directly concerned the type of change the former Italian national team winger was seeking: the ouster of head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley.
The behind-the-scenes bickering continued on Tuesday as players and coaches returned to Toronto’s training facility, according to multiple sources present. There, Bradley met with the team’s leadership committee, which includes his son and TFC captain Michael Bradley, Sean Johnson, Insigne, Matt Hedges, Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Richie Laryea, about how to address Bernardeschi’s comments. After that meeting, the full team convened. There, Bob Bradley confronted Bernardeschi about his quotes from Saturday night. Bernardeschi initially said he had nothing else to add, but when challenged further, the Italian traded barbs about team issues and tactics with both Bradleys and Kaye. Eventually, the meeting dispersed and the team went forward with its preparation for Saturday’s game against D.C. United.
On Friday, Bob Bradley announced he made a “coach’s decision” to keep Bernardeschi out of the squad for the weekend’s game.
This week’s events could be the breaking point of a culture in Toronto that has deteriorated over the last three years as TFC has tumbled down the MLS standings. Despite spending $2 million more on player salaries than anyone else in the league, Toronto FC is now fourth from bottom in the overall standings. The same team that played in three MLS Cups in four years from 2016-19, winning once, has missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and currently sits in last place in the Eastern Conference with no clear path out and a roster that needs significant work.
Interviews with more than a dozen sources in and around Toronto FC, some of whom were granted anonymity in order to speak freely without retribution, revealed a fractured and messy environment at the club: a locker room where some players felt they couldn’t speak openly when captain Michael Bradley was present; prima donna stars in Insigne and Bernardeschi who have significantly underdelivered on the field; in-fighting between those most high-profile players and a deficient player-recruitment and squad-building approach.
The conflict between the Italians and Bradley spilled into the public eye with Bernardeschi’s postgame comments, but the issues in Toronto go well beyond the clash between the designated players and their coach.
“It was the worst environment of my career,” a former Toronto FC player told The Athletic.
In a text message to his agent that was viewed by The Athletic, another player summed it up simply: “It’s f—ed.”
The current crisis in Toronto has its roots in the first few months of the 2021 season, in which the team played their home games in Orlando, Florida due to COVID-19 restrictions on international travel between the U.S. and Canada.
An already difficult circumstance was made worse by on-field results: eight losses in the first 11 games, including six in a row. The last of those, a 7-1 thumping at D.C. United, prompted TFC to fire coach Chris Armas after just a few months in charge.
“It wasn’t an urgency or pressure,” TFC president Bill Manning told The Athletic this week, recalling the environment in the aftermath of Armas’ ouster. “We were languishing… And as team president, you’re saying ‘Okay, what do I need to do to get us towards a course that can get fans excited again, and back towards winning again?’”
Manning told The Athletic he looked into the possibility of signing Cristiano Ronaldo after he left Juventus, but the Portuguese star ended up returning to Manchester United. The root of the idea to sign Insigne came when Manning watched Italy win Euro 2020, and noted the celebrations of the Italian fans in Toronto.
“I looked up the Italian national team (and) what players were coming out of contract,” Manning said at the time the Insigne signing was announced. “I started writing down players that I thought were world class, that I thought would have commercial value in this market. And I then presented to MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the entity that owns Toronto FC) a five-year vision on what we need to do to reinvigorate our club. And Lorenzo Insigne was the first name on that list.”
Manning led the charge to sign Insigne, making trips to Italy himself to meet with the player and his representatives. He contacted Andrea D’Amico, agent of former TFC talisman Sebastian Giovinco, to see if he would serve as an intermediary in negotiations. In the end he inked Insigne to a four-year, $60 million contract that smashed previous highs for MLS salaries. Manning and TFC doubled down with the signing of another Italian national team player, Bernardeschi. D’Amico played a role in that signing as well.
Manning said that Andrea Pirlo, who had departed as manager of Juventus in May of 2021, was floated to TFC as a head coach option at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Instead, Manning turned to one of the most successful coaches in MLS history, Bob Bradley, to take over as coach and sporting director after the end of his contract with LAFC.
“‘How can we reignite this thing? It was to go get a big player and to manage the big player, or two, a big coach,” Manning said. “And that was literally the best-laid plan. Like, how can that fail?”
The “how” has manifested itself over the past two seasons.
Insigne and Bernardeschi joined TFC after the conclusion of their respective European seasons – Insigne with Napoli and Bernardeschi with Juventus. The Canadians had won just five of their first 21 MLS games before they arrived. Toronto went on a bit of a run with the Italians in the lineup, but lost all of their last four matches to finish second to last in the league. In 2023 so far, Insigne has scored once as injuries have limited him to seven appearances (six starts) of the club’s 14 games this season. Bernardeschi has only three goals and two assists in 14 matches this season, with zero goal contributions in his last six games.
The production falls far short of expectations around the two Italians, who were brought in with the hope of not just leading the attack, but rejuvenating a club and a city. Along the way, the two stars have clashed — between themselves and with others, including Bob Bradley.
Multiple sources within and outside of the team were told that at the conclusion of last season, Insigne declared in front of teammates that he would not return to TFC if Bradley remained head coach. Although he did indeed return, the same sources confirmed Insigne again told teammates this week that he did not want to continue playing under Bradley moving forward.
Multiple sources familiar with both players also said Insigne and Bernardeschi did not get along before signing for TFC and that those issues have continued in Toronto, with the compatriots having at least one blow-up fight last season. Last month, when Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio were both injured, Insigne was named captain for the upcoming game against NYCFC. When the team was informed ahead of a training session in preparation for the game, Bernardeschi initially refused to go on to the field, multiple sources who witnessed the encounter said.
According to multiple club sources, Bernardeschi asked for a new contract after last season, telling the front office that he wanted to make as much as Insigne; a request that was rebuffed.
A jockeying of egos between the designated players has continued. Sources said Bernardeschi was upset that Insigne had a jacket collaboration with Drake’s OVO brand and he did not, for example, and that Insigne went to MLS’ media day ahead of the 2023 season while he did not. Insigne’s reps, meanwhile, were upset that the 2023 MLSPA salary release did not include the star’s marketing deal that adds a significant chunk to his earnings. According to the release, Insigne’s $7.5-million guaranteed compensation is now second in the league to Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri’s $8.153-million deal.
Asked if he was aware that Insigne and Bernardeschi did not get along before arriving in Toronto, Manning said Insigne helped recruit Bernardeschi.
“My understanding, and then even when we floated to Insigne that we were going to talk to Bernardeschi, is they had a very professional teammate relationship,” Manning said. “They weren’t buddies, but they were close enough.”
The pair have not been pillars of the locker room individually, either. Sources within the team said Bernardeschi has been admonished for using a vape pen in the practice facility, including the training room and on the team plane, despite being told multiple times it was not allowed. Insigne, meanwhile, has remained a somewhat distant figure among the squad, in part because he does not speak much English. He interacts with teammates who speak Italian and Spanish, but otherwise keeps mostly to himself, club sources said.
Despite their differences, Insigne and Bernardeschi now appear united in their hopes of creating a change in TFC’s coaching staff.
Insigne and Bernardeschi were not immediately available for comment through the club. The players’ representives also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With the team and its star players underperforming, the Italians’ issues with Bob Bradley finally reached a zenith with Bernardeschi’s public comments.
“We don’t have a construction in the game. When the player has the ball, we don’t know how to pass the ball,” Bernardeschi said Saturday. “This is the real problem, because we don’t train about that. We lose every game. We tie, we lose, we tie, we lose. Sometimes we win. But I can’t believe this sincerely. This is no good for the young players. They need to get better, no? And grow up with an idea of football, and the players with personality, they need to help, help us to understand and follow the idea of football. But we need the idea of football. This is the real situation.”
The quote made clear one area in which they clash: Bradley’s training methods.
The Italians favor sessions that focus on tactical plans and specific player roles, sources said, while Bradley has opted for more all-encompassing sessions that better simulate the pace and physicality of MLS and leave room for flexibility on the field. The concepts and methods are essentially the same as they were at LAFC, where the team won a Supporters’ Shield, Vela won MLS MVP and Vela and Diego Rossi both won golden boots.
“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,” Bradley told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
Bob Bradley directly addressed those comments in Tuesday’s team meeting, but the resulting exchange with Bernardeschi highlighted another problem for some players on the team: The presence of Michael Bradley, Bob’s son, as the team’s captain.
In the meeting, per multiple sources present, Bernardeschi quipped “of course, you’re his son” to Michael when the veteran midfielder spoke up to encourage Bernardeschi to air his issues out in the meeting, and “of course, you’re his papa” to Bob. At one point, when Mark-Anthony Kaye interjected, Bernardeschi referred to Kaye as Bob’s “other son.”
Multiple sources on the team or close to players on the team said there is a feeling among some players in the locker room that issues discussed around Michael Bradley would find their way to his father and the coaching staff, creating a walking-on-eggshells feeling among a locker room that is, ideally, supposed to be close-knit. Those sources said that players still don’t speak freely around Michael due to concern that it will reach the coaches.
“He’s not a teammate,” said one former Toronto FC player of Michael. “He’s an assistant coach.”
Other sources who have worked or played for Toronto in recent years said Michael Bradley spent a lot of time with previous TFC managers Greg Vanney and Chris Armas and that the behavior has not changed much under his father. The perception, though, has. That the Bradleys have carpooled home together at times, according to two team sources, has reinforced it.
This isn’t the first time Bob and Michael Bradley have navigated these issues. Bob coached Michael at the start of the latter’s club career with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars and at the start of his international career, from 2006-11. The dynamic now in Toronto is complicated by their respective resumes. Since 2011, Bob Bradley coached in Egypt and Sweden, became the first American manager in the Premier League and won 2019 Supporters’ Shield and coach of the year honors after returning to MLS with LAFC. Michael Bradley grew to become one of the best American players of his generation and is considered one of the key figures — perhaps the key figure — in transforming Toronto FC from MLS laughingstock to a powerhouse after joining in 2014.
“There have been so many challenges here over the last few years,” Michael Bradley wrote to The Athletic in a statement this week. “Through it all, I’ve never stopped giving my heart and soul for the club.”
Amidst all of this, TFC’s on-field performance has suffered (though the 35-year-old Bradley has been out injured since early April). Toronto’s star-laden attack has only 13 goals scored in 14 matches, bottom third in MLS. They are 25th in both non-penalty expected goals (12.73) and big chances created (14). Insigne and Bernardeschi are the two players most responsible for driving the attack.
“I’ve said a few times that a huge part of my responsibility is to get the best out of those two,” Bob Bradley told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “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 always take full responsibility. So the idea of how to take more out of them, yeah, that’s the work every day.”
On Thursday, Manning backed Bob Bradley.
“Bob’s our head coach,” he said. “Bob is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I don’t think anyone can deny his experience and the winning pedigree he has. I talk to Bob every day. I know how hard he’s working. I know everything he’s doing to try to get it going in the right direction. And I want him to rally the troops to win. I don’t want to get into safe, not safe, all that other stuff. We’re focusing on the right now. And I know he’s doing everything he can to right this ship.”
Many within and outside of the club believe the trouble in Toronto started more than two years ago, after finishing the 2020 season just three points off the Supporters’ Shield and losing to Nashville in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
Toronto had been to MLS Cup in three of the previous four seasons under head coach Greg Vanney, whose contract was up. Multiple sources told The Athletic that Vanney wanted to continue with the club but only with increased input in player signings and the direction of the team on the field, including the academy structure. A source involved in discussions said Vanney could not get a clear picture of the long-term vision of the club and, despite initially agreeing to financial terms, ultimately decided not to return to Toronto. He was later hired by the Los Angeles Galaxy, where he has since been named sporting director as well as head coach.
Vanney’s departure was one of a series that depleted the brain trust which helped build TFC into a powerhouse. Ahead of the 2019 season, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko — architect of Toronto’s 2017 treble-winning team — departed for the Columbus Crew. Key TFC front office members Corey Wray, Issa Tall and Jaime McMillan would eventually join Bezbatchenko in Columbus, and all were in the front office when the Crew won MLS Cup in 2020. Sean Rubio, TFC’s senior manager of scouting and budget, departed ahead of the 2020 season for Austin FC, where he is currently the interim sporting director. Vanney also took several coaches and staff with him to LA when he left at the end of 2020. Ali Curtis was hired as GM in 2019, then left in 2021. This year, director of scouting Jack Dodd left to become technical director at the Portland Timbers.
Manning said the turnover is “normal in sports and normal in business when you have a level of success.”
“Generally, everyone that leaves, leaves for a position of higher responsibility, and more money,” he added.
With the major figures of TFC’s golden age gone, and after pulling the ripcord on Armas as coach after just 11 games in 2021, Manning was left to figure out the solution. To do that, Manning says he leaned on his track record across different sports including with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, the NBA’s Houston Rockets, his time as president of MLS’ Real Salt Lake and his experience winning MLS’ first treble with TFC in 2017. He signed Insigne, Bernardeschi, and Bradley.
Manning agreed this week that the team “paid a premium” to sign Insigne, though the contract had the potential to create a severe imbalance in the locker room and in the expectations the player had of his place in the team and league. MLS is littered with stories of high-paid DPs who don’t seem fully-committed to playing to their maximum capability. In Toronto, DPs like Yeferson Soteldo and Pablo Piatti lasted just one season. Insigne had no comparison; his pay dwarfed that of even the biggest stars who had come through MLS before, including Kaká, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The signings highlighted what some believe has been a problem under Manning. Multiple former TFC employees said Manning does not seek others’ opinions when making decisions and that he considers himself the best scout, negotiator and talent evaluator in the club. Another said he looks for the easiest path in soccer decisions, pointing to the fact that Manning said he went to the website Transfermarkt.com to find a player, while failing to consider the relationships and personalities at play in such a major move.
“I think there’s an across the board feeling that his impact on the sporting side is not necessarily a positive one,” one source who worked for TFC said.
Manning pushed back on that characterization.
“My involvement has been the same across all my jobs,” he said. “Because as team president, everything eventually comes across my desk. And sometimes you want to provide support, and you want to provide resources and everything else. And then sometimes you have to ask questions. And sometimes you have to provide direction. And then you do rely on your staff and your talent to be aligned and make sure you’re going in the same direction.”
Toronto FC’s recent history, though, shows no trace of that alignment. The club spent significant multimillion-dollar transfer fees and then traded, bought out or terminated deals with designated players Soteldo, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore and Carlos Salcedo in the past two years. The outlay and structure of the moves has limited how they could rebuild the team, and as a result TFC’s current squad is unbalanced: at one end are 14 players over the age of 28, a startling amount that predictably lends itself to the continued injuries the team has endured. At the other end are 10 players aged 23 or younger, many of whom are getting their first professional experience. Multiple players from MLS Next Pro affiliate TFC II have been signed to short-term agreements this spring to deal with the constant injury woes the club is facing.
Manning said the plan was to link the signing of high-profile players like Insigne and Bernardeschi with Canadian national team standouts like Kaye and Laryea with an eye on building into the 2026 World Cup. But three years out from that tournament, TFC once again finds itself at the bottom of the standings trying to find its way out.
With fractures through the squad, from the head coach and captain to the biggest and highest paid stars, the lessons from two years ago can at least serve as one clear message: Whatever Toronto FC does, there isn’t a quick fix.
(Top photos: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images; Angel Marchini/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images; Scott Taetsch/Getty Images. Design: Eamonn Dalton)