TORONTO — Sometimes it pays making a list.
In announcing the signing of Italian star winger Lorenzo Insigne, Toronto FC president Bill Manning said the hunt to acquire the Napoli captain started last summer out of concern at the struggling MLS club's direction.
Knowing team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had a board meeting in September and having seen the local interest in Italy's run to the European championship, he started researching possible player targets.
"I actually went to the Transfermarkt website and I looked up the Italian national team on what players were coming out of contract," Manning told reporters Saturday. "And Lorenzo was one of the few players that was coming out of contract. I started writing down players that I thought were world-class, that I thought would have commercial value in this market."
Manning, who had presented a five-year plan to the MLSE board when he was hired in 2015, said he then shared his "vision on what we need to do to reinvigorate our club and Lorenzo Insigne was the first name on that list."
Months later, Manning has his man.
Insigne has signed a pre-contract to join the Major League Soccer club on a four-year deal to begin July 1. The Napoli captain will be 31 when he dons Toronto colours.
Insigne has played at the highest level, from the Champions League to World Cup.
He has made 416 appearances for Napoli, scoring 114 goals with 95 assists across all competitions. In 11 seasons with his hometown club, he has won the Super Cup (2014-15) and Coppa Italia (2013-14 and 2019-20).
Insigne has 10 goals in 53 appearances for Italy, helping the Azzurri to the European title last July in a penalty shootout win over England.
With Napoli's season ending May 21, Insigne will have some time to recover in advance of the second half of Toronto's campaign. But he will still face a busy year if sixth-ranked Italy qualifies for the World Cup in Qatar — which will necessitate qualifying playoff wins over No. 67 North Macedonia and then either No. 8 Portugal or No. 37 Turkey.
Manning called Insigne deal a "transformational signing" for both club and league — part of the franchise's plan to load up in advance of the 2026 World Cup, which Canada is co-hosting.
The signing is a swing for the fences, with Toronto looking to return to its winning ways. Champions in 2017 and runners-up in 2016 and 2019, TFC finished 26th out of 27 teams last season with a dismal 6-18-10 campaign.
"Toronto FC's really been out of market for two full seasons (due to the pandemic)," said Manning. "And we lost a buzz. We lost a buzz in this market."
"Lorenzo Insigne is going to be a player that people want to come see," he added.
At five foot four and 132 pounds, Insigne is small but packs a punch. He can play in attack across the field, but is often deployed as a left winger where he can use his speed, ball skills and powerful shot to great effect.
Insigne made a brief appearance via a social media video posted by TFC.
"I want to say hello to all the fans in Toronto," he said in Italian. "I'm excited for this new adventure. I want to thank the club and we'll see you in July."
"All for one," he added in English, quoting the TFC motto with a smile and thumb's up.
After getting the MLSE board's blessing, Manning turned to Italian agent Andrea D'Amico — who represented Italian star Sebastian Giovinco in his 2015 move to TFC — for help as an intermediary. D'Amico knew Insigne's agent and made the first call.
Former MLS vice-president Lino DiCuollo also played a key role in the on-the-ground negotiations in Italy as Toronto looked to pry Insigne away from his beloved hometown club.
The talks were not exactly conducted under a cone of silence - more like a sieve with the Italian media providing numerous updates on their star player's next destination.
Manning said TFC's "ambition" as a North American club, coupled with the city's sizable Italian community appealed to Insigne.
So did its contract offer, which apparently trumped those of other clubs including Napoli, which currently stands third in the Serie A standings at 12-4-4. Insigne will reportedly become the highest-paid player in MLS by a considerable margin.
Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela led the league's pay scale last season at US$6.3 million, before taxes. Insigne reportedly will make more than that — after taxes.
With its Byzantine salary cap rules, MLS is still a league of have and have-nots. Second-year striker Ifunanyachi Achara made $66,724 with Toronto last season.
On the plus side, Toronto did not need to pay a transfer fee to acquire Insigne because his contract is expiring. The club paid fees of $10 million apiece to acquire U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley and England striker Jermain Defoe in 2014, with the two players earning a combined $12.68 million on top of that in their first season.
Bob Bradley, named Toronto's head coach and sporting director in late November, coached Vela in Los Angeles.
While the quest to sign Insigne started before Bob Bradley's arrival, Manning said the new coach was on board with the acquisition.
"He said to me nobody likes stars better than him," Manning recalled.
In a statement, Bob Bradley — the father of Toronto's captain — called Insigne's ability to create chances for himself and teammates "special."
"Lorenzo is the kind of player you come to watch, because there’s always a chance he’ll do something unforgettable,” he added.
Insigne will join Toronto as a designated player, meaning only a portion of his pay — it was $612,500 last season — will count against the team's salary cap budget.
That means TFC will have to move one of its existing designated players — Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, American striker Jozy Altidore and Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo — to make room for Insigne.
Altidore and Soteldo are both expected to move on, freeing up more space for new talent. Manning said the team will sort out the DP logjam before Insigne's arrival.
Toronto can buy one of them out, with no damage to its salary cap. It can also sell them, with a move back to Brazil rumoured for Soteldo.
Toronto has had success with diminutive Italians in the past. Giovinco, who joined Toronto from Juventus, scored 83 goals and added 64 assists in 142 appearances in all competitions before departing in 2019 for (financially) greener pastures in Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal SFC.
The five-foot-four 130-pound Giovinco, known as the Atomic Ant, virtually ran the table in his first year in North America. He won MVP honours as well as the Golden Boot as top scorer, was named top newcomer and voted onto the league's Best XI.
Toronto paid Giovinco $7.115 million a season, which topped the league at the time.
TFC now needs to rebuild around Insigne, with defence a glaring issue after giving up a franchise-worst 66 goals in 2021. With marauding fullback Richie Laryea joining England's Nottingham Forest, TFC has yet another hole to fill.
"It's important that we give Bob the pieces that he can be successful with," said Manning, promising more player moves in advance of the Feb. 26 kickoff to the season and during the summer transfer window.
Bigger names have joined MLS in the past but it can be argued that Insigne is closer to his prime.
David Beckham was 32 when he made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut in 2007. Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 36 when he debuted for the Galaxy, scoring twice in his first game.
Born in Frattaminore, a stone's throw north of Naples, Insigne joined his hometown Napoli in 2009, making his Serie A debut at the age of 19 in January 2001 and his Italy senior debut in September 2012.
Insigne comes from a big family with modest financial resources. He would get up at 5 or 6 a.m. to work "as a peddler" then go to training in the afternoons.
"Sometimes I'd fall asleep in the dressing room and the coach had to come and wake me up," he said in a 2018 interview.
Insigne's Napoli roots run deep. Growing up there, he named his dog Pocho — after Napoli's Argentine star Ezequiel Lavezzi whose nickname was El Pocho.
Before joining Napoli, he had trials with Torino and Inter.
"But I was always dismissed because I was too short," Insigne said. "I had considered giving up but my desire and passion were too strong. I wanted to make it as professional footballer and now I'm here."
Insigne, who has two sons with wife Genoveffa (Jenny) Darone, wears No. 24 with Napoli, a number that currently belongs to TFC's Canadian winger Jacob Shaffelburg.
MLSE is no stranger to big-ticket items.
Raptors star Pascal Siakam is earning $33 million this season. Maple Leaf forwards Auston Matthews ($10.47 million), Mitch Marner ($10.36 million) and John Tavares ($9.35 million) are making a combined $30.178 million this season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8. 2022.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press