Toronto FC's disappointing season became a lot more complicated off the pitch with news that disgruntled Italian star Federico Bernardeschi has been benched for Saturday's game against D.C. United.
Coach Bob Bradley denied the move was disciplinary, calling it instead a "coach's decision."
"Fede will not be in the squad for this game. A lot going on this week, a lot of internal discussions … When you think about preparing a group for this game, we felt this was the best way to handle it," he told reporters after training Friday.
"There's discussions that are going on just about how we're going to continue to work together," he added.
Toronto (2-5-7) is mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. And it has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons this week in the wake of Bernardeschi's unflattering comments about the team's style of play following last weekend's 1-0 loss at Austin FC.
Bernardeschi, who has not scored in nine games, dropped a bombshell in a virtual availability with reporters after the stoppage-time defeat.
"We don't play," the Italian said in English. "We play long pass. We don't have any idea to play."
"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."
Bradley, in his first public comments on the outburst, said Tuesday that Bernardeschi was "out of line." On Friday, the three-time MLS coach of the year revealed Bernardeschi, who was not on the field in the portion of practice open to the media, would not play on the weekend.
But Bradley said Bernardeschi's future in the club was not in question.
"I think that the plan is, for sure, that Fede is back in it (next week) and we put this week behind us and we all move forward," he said.
Bradley chose his words carefully and tried to downplay the rift.
"He and I had a good discussion today. I think we're both on the same page and excited to keep working together," he said.
Bradley clearly wanted to bring the conversation back to football. It is not his style to air dirty laundry in public. But clearly there is trouble in TFC land with different camps offering different stories.
Bradley has said for months turning the team around will take time, hinting at a tangled web that has had to be sorted behind the scenes in terms of the salary cap budget. He has also said that the Italians are not used to playing in a league with salary restrictions, often meaning that the next man up is a youngster not a decorated international.
Fellow Italian Lorenzo Insigne, No. 2 on the MLS salary list at US$7.5 million, rarely speaks to the media and always with an interpreter when he does. His body language on the pitch often exudes frustration, although the Rolls-Royce in the parking lot likely offers a smooth ride from the Toronto training centre.
Considering Bernardeschi is the team's leading scorer with thee goals and three assists this season, not to mention the league's fourth-highest paid player at US$6.295 million, benching the Italian is quite the statement.
Especially when Toronto has won just once in its last 11 games (1-5-5) in all competitions and suffered four straight shutouts in league play. Toronto's scoreless drought stands at 404 minutes, dating back to CJ Sapong's goal April 29 in a 1-0 win over visiting New York City FC.
Toronto launched just three shots, none on target, last week in Austin.
The turmoil in Toronto has not gone unnoticed.
"It's a strange one," D.C. United coach Wayne Rooney said Thursday when asked about TFC's season. "The main focus on the game on Saturday is us, if I'm being honest. Because Toronto, as you said, they're not going through a great moment. I think it's clear that there's been a bit of wear between the players and maybe staff.
"So we don't know where that's at. We don't know which players are going to play. We don't know how they're going to play, if I'm being completely honest with you. So the main focus is on ourselves and making sure we do out job right and we go in there with the right mindset to try and win the game.
"What we have to be really cautious of is Toronto has some really good players who can hurt you. And at any given moment, those players can hurt you and win the game for Toronto."
Wins have been hard to come by for Toronto this season. Injuries and a lack of depth have cost Bradley's team.
D.C. is coming off a 3-0 win over the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy, with all three goals coming between the 71st and 80th minute. Rooney's team has lost just once in its last seven league outings (4-1-2) with the 14 points collected tied with Philadelphia and Nashville for the most in MLS since the run started in mid-April.
Both D.C. and Toronto have been dealing with injury issues but are slowly getting some players back.
D.C. was missing eight players last week while Toronto was without 10 players through injury or suspension.
Listed as out on Toronto's injury lost were defenders Sigurd Rosted and Shane O’Neill, midfielders Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Alonso Coello and Victor Vazquez and forwards Adama Diomande. Forward Deandre Kerr was listed as questionable, going through concussion protocols.
But Insigne, who did not travel to Austin due to a foot issue, was back in training this week. And midfielder/forward Jahkeele Marshall Rutty is also available after serving a two-game suspension.
Rooney said forward Taxi Fountas, centre back Steven Birnbaum and wingbacks Andy Najar and Pedro Santos will all be available Saturday after injury absences.
The two teams met Feb. 25 in the season opener at Audi Field with D.C. rallying for a 3-2 win on goals in the 90th and 98th minute.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press