Led by the Italian infantry, a recharged Toronto FC club rolls over Charlotte FC

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The addition of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi into the Toronto FC lineup on Saturday night was more than just a shot in the arm for the Reds. It was like they got zapped with a high-powered, made-in-Italy defibrillator.

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The revitalized Reds — buoyed by the addition of the Serie A trio of Insigne, Bernardeschi and Domenic Criscito, all playing together in a TFC jersey for the first time, crushed shell-shocked MLS expansion club Charlotte FC 4-0 in front of a highly-charged crowd of 29,067 at BMO Field. The victory snapped a five-game win-less — and two-game losing streak — by TFC.

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It was the first-ever game at BMO Field for Charlotte and the North Carolinians probably would have been better off missing their flight to T.O. The Reds scored all four goals in the first-half, with two by Michael Bradley and singles by Jonathan Osorio and Bernardeschi. Bradley, lining up alongside fellow midfielder Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye, played with definite spring in his step.

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Heading into the match, the Reds were eight points out of a playoff spot with six teams to climb over and only 13 games remaining. A win streak is an absolute must if TFC has any chance of qualifying for the post-season and if Saturday’s match is any indication, reaching the playoffs may not be such a long-shot.

Insigne, 31, who signed a four-year deal reportedly worth $45 million after 11 seasons at Napoli, demonstrated his attacking brilliance from the left side of the field every time he touched the ball, creating numerous scoring chances with clever passing and dangerous runs into the Charlotte end. He picked up an assist on Bradley’s second goal. Longtime Juventus man Bernardeschi, playing on the right wing, was also brilliant, scoring and recording an assist. Newly signed Kaye had two assists.

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With TFC facing the Vancouver Whitecaps on the West Coast on Tuesday night in the 2022 Canadian Championship final, coach Bob Bradley substituted Insigne and Bernardeschi out of Saturday’s game after the first half. Canadian national team centre back Doneil Henry, who was signed on Friday, came into the game in the second half to replace Shane O’Neill, who appeared to suffer a knock midway through the opening 45 minutes.

What pleased coach Bradley as much as his team’s offensive explosion was the fact that the Reds recorded their first clean sheet of the 2022 season. Prior to Saturday’s game, TFC played 29 straight MLS games while giving up at least one goal, equaling the third-longest regular season run in league history (Tampa Bay 2000-01).

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All three of TFC’s centre backs — the team’s so-called Achilles heel — played well, O’Neill, Henry and especially Lukas MacNaughton.

Osorio almost opened the scoring in the second minute after a corner kick by Insigne, but right-footed the ball over the goal. The Brampton native’s strike came in the a fourth minute when a Charlotte defender tried to clear it and rammed the ball off Osorio’s leg and into the goal. A minute later, Bernardeschi right-footed a ball just to the right the goal from close in.

In the 10th minute, Bradley scored off another corner kick when he converted a Bernardeschi cross into a goal with a well-placed header into the far corner from just outside the box.

The game slowed considerably after TFC’s early goals as Charlotte regrouped, though Jesus Jimenez scored a third for Toronto in the 28th minute when he was sent in alone. But the play was ruled offside. Bernardeschi scored in the 31st minute when he was fed a pass by Kaye a few yards outside of the box and left-footed a bomb into the far corner.

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TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made his first good save of the match on a header from close in by Charlotte’s Kamil Józwiak.

Bradley’s second goal in added time in the first half came when he picked up a back-heel pass from Insigne, split the Charlotte backline and right-footed a chip-shot into the bottom left corner.

With Insigne and Bernardeschi out of the game to start the second half, Charlotte went on the front foot. But 20 minutes into the second half, Charlotte defender Christian Fuchs pulled Toronto forward Jayden Nelson down to prevent the 19-year-old from going on a breakaway, prompting referee Filip Dujic to issue the Charlotte captain with a red card.

That foul came a couple of minutes after visiting coach Christian Lattanzio was given a yellow card. Dujic then slapped Lattanzio with a second yellow, as the frustration reached a peak for the visiting side. In its first season in MLS, Charlotte has been certainly not been pushovers, recording 26 points in the club’s first 22 game.

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