TORONTO — A week of turmoil ended with a much-needed win for Toronto FC.
There was also a vote of confidence in the club and coach Bob Bradley from Italian star Lorenzo Insigne, who assisted on both goals in Toronto’s 2-1 win over D.C. United on Saturday.
“I’m very happy with the club. I’ve always been happy with the club,” Insigne said after the game through an interpreter. “I’m happy with the coach as well.”
Fellow Italian Federico Bernardeschi clearly has a different view and was benched Saturday for questioning Bradley’s tactics following last week’s 1-0 loss in Austin.
The rift prompted a slew of unflattering headlines and stories about divisions and factions within the slumping franchise.
“It was a very important win … It was a very difficult week,” said Insigne, in his first meeting with local reporters this season. “A lot of things were said about the club and about us. But it was really important for us to stay together and to work hard.”
Despite the win, Bradley offered little in his post-game availability. He seemed more grumpy than celebratory, perhaps understandable given the mud that was flying around this week.
“I said to the guys before the game ‘We need a lot of guys to have big games, compete, play for each other, run, make plays.’ And a lot of guys had big games,” he said.
Goals by Deandre Kerr and Kosi Thompson helped Toronto (3-5-7) move out of the Eastern Conference basement albeit it to 14th place. TFC is just two points out of a playoff position in the congested East. An 87th-minute goal by D.C.’s Christian Benteke made for a tense ending but Toronto hung on through six minutes of added time.
Midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye savoured the club’s first win in May but kept it in perspective.
“We can sleep a bit better tonight but we still have a lot of work in front of us,” he said.
“I think today was a really collective effort where things went right,” he added
Toronto had lost its last four league outings and won just one of its previous 11 outings (1-5-5) in all competitions.
In contrast, D.C. (5-6-4) had lost just one of its previous seven matches (1-4-2) and had shut out its last two opponents.
Despite the unrest, Toronto started with purpose and went ahead in the 14th minute when an unmarked Kerr, who was starting for Bernardeschi, headed home an Insigne corner. It was the second goal of the season for the 20-year-old Kerr.
The goal ended a 418-minute scoring drought in league play for Toronto, dating back to April 29 when CJ Sapong scored in a 1-0 win over visiting New York City FC.
It was essentially one-way traffic in the first half with D.C coach Wayne Rooney making a statement on his team’s indifferent play with a triple change in first-half injury time, sending on Taxi Fountas, Andy Najar and Pedro Santos.
According to Opta, D.C. United is the third team in MLS history to make three substitutions in the first half of a match and the first since Chivas USA versus Portland in October 2013.
Toronto could have led 4-0 going into the break before an announced crowd of 27,065.
D.C. looked better to open the second half but Toronto added to the lead in the 72nd minute with Insigne playing provider to Thompson on a counterattack.
Insigne had started the break with a fine cross-field pass, with the ball eventually finding its way to Richie Laryea. His cross came to Insigne, who unselfishly fed an onrushing Thompson in the penalty box. It was the second career MLS goal for the 20-year-old Thompson.
D.C. pulled one back late with Benteke poking a rebound home from close range after Toronto goalkeeper Sean Johnson had made two fine saves off a corner. It was Benteke’s seventh of the season.
Bernardeschi, who has three goals and three assists, has not scored in nine matches. But he hit a sore spot with his post-game comments last week.
“We don’t have any idea to play,” he said.
“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.”
Insigne had little to say when asked about his compatriot’s situation with the club, saying it was between the player and coach.
“(Fede) is a great champion and we will see him again on the pitch ,” said the former Napoli captain.
Bradley called Bernardeschi’s comments “out of line.” He described the benching as a “coach’s decision” rather than a disciplinary move, adding Bernardeschi’s future with the club was not in doubt.
But the size of the rift seemed clear when Bernardeschi, ever present in the Toronto lineup this season up until Saturday, responded with an Instagram story that listed all the team’s statistical categories he was first or second in.
The giant BMO banner that reads “Better Together” that is brought onto the midfield circle before kickoff seemed to speak volumes Saturday. So did the “Free Fede” banner in the south stand.
Bradley was booed loudly when his name was announced before kickoff. There were also chants of “We want Bradley out” from the south stand, home to the supporters groups, during the early going.
But Toronto’s play soon improved the mood of the fans and BMO Field was soon rocking in a return to happier times.
Toronto was without injured defenders Sigurd Rosted and Shane O’Neill, midfielders Michel Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Victor Vazquez and Alonso Coello and forward Adama Diomande.
Insigne, who missed last week’s game with a foot injury, returned as TFC captain. Midfielder Brandon Servania had to come off in the 19th minute after picking up a knock.
Toronto hosts the Chicago Fire on Wednesday before playing at Minnesota United on Saturday.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2023.