TORONTO — Saturday's visit by Charlotte FC brings back good memories for Toronto FC supporters.
Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi made their MLS debut against Charlotte last July — and they did not disappoint.
Bernardeschi scored one goal and set up another and Insigne collected a stylish assist in a 4-0 romp over then-expansion Charlotte. The win marked the start of Toronto's best spell of the 2022 season — an eight-game league run that saw the team go 4-1-3 (including a 2-0 win in Charlotte that featured goals from both Insigne and Bernardeschi).
Insigne is out injured but Bernardeschi remains in fine form as Toronto (1-1-3) welcomes Charlotte (1-3-1) back to BMO Field on Saturday.
Bernardeschi has been involved in 15 of TFC’s 29 goals (10 goals and five assists) dating back to that July win over Charlotte. He has contributed to nine of the club's last 15 goals (six goals and three assists) going back to the Aug. 27 victory at Charlotte.
The 29-year-old Italian has scored two of Toronto's six goals this season, setting up two others.
"We know the characteristics of Bernardeschi … We are fully aware," said Charlotte coach Christian Lattanzio, a fellow Italian.
"I think the boys are pretty aware of his qualities and what we need to do to limit … his game," he added.
TFC has been showing signs of improvement, going unbeaten in its last four games (1-0-3) after coughing up two late goals in the season-opening 3-2 loss at D.C. United.
"We're making progress," said coach Bob Bradley. "The mentality of the group's been good … What comes next? We can still be sharper. We can still find more ways to create big chances … But overall I think the guys have worked in a really good way and we see good progress."
Toronto is coming off back-to-back shutouts — 2-0 over visiting Inter Miami and 0-0 at San Jose last Saturday — after posting just three in its previous 45 league matches dating back to September 2021.
"A team that is always difficult to play against," said Lattanzio.
Both teams have injury concerns.
Insigne has not played since hobbling off the field 34 minutes into the Feb. 25 opener at D.C. United.
"We are seeing progress … We're getting there but we're not there yet," Bradley said of the Italian's possible return.
Veteran striker Adama Diomande (hamstring) and fullback Cristian Gutierrez (non-COVID illness) are also out. while fullback Raoul Petretta, who left after the first half of last weekend's 0-0 draw in San Jose, has returned to training and should be available.
The good news is fullback Richie Laryea, midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye and forward Ayo Akinola are back from international duty with Canada.
On Friday, TFC signed midfielder Alonso Coello Camarero to a short-term loan agreement for the second straght week. The 23-year-old Spaniard, who is with TFC 2, made his first team debut in San Jose.
Charlotte is hurting in midfield.
Captain Ashley Westwood, a veteran presence who played in England's Premier League for Aston Villa and Burnley, is out for a second week with a thigh injury.
And Brandt Bronico, who has started all five games this season, will miss the match after being handed a one-match ban and undisclosed fine by the MLS disciplinary committee this week for scything down New York Red Bulls midfielder Omir Fernandez, a challenge deemed serious foul play after the fact.
"I was very surprised," Lattanzio said this week. "Because from where I was, it didn't look like a malicious challenge. I thought if anything it was a little bit out of timing, out of sync. The ref did not think a lot of that and I thought he was in a good spot. I think it's quite harsh to go from nothing to a red card."
Defender Bill Tuiloma, who missed last weekend's 1-1 tie with the visiting Red Bulls with a thigh issue, is available Saturday.
Forward Karol Swiderski, one of Charlotte's designated players, is back after scoring for Poland in a 1-0 win over Albania in a Euro 2024 qualifier.
Charlotte opened the season with losses to New England (1-0), St. Louis City (3-1) and Atlanta (3-0) before rebounding to win 2-1 at Orlando and tie the visiting Red Bulls 1-1.
The victory in Orlando was just the fourth-ever on the road for the second-year franchise, whose all-time away record is 4-13-2. Charlotte is looking to avoid defeat in back-to-back road MLS matches for the first time.
Offence has been an issue this season with just four goals, one of which was an own goal, in the five games to date. Two of those goals have come from Argentine designated player Enzo Copetti, who is looking to become the third player in MLS history to score in his first three road games in the league, after Cucho Hernandez (2022) and Juan Pablo Angel (2007).
The Charlotte coaching staff includes assistant coach Pa-Modou Kah, a former Vancouver Whitecap.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press