Can Toronto FC’s new Italian influx mark a return to MLS glory?

“I’ve met a lot of Italians in this first week I’ve been here,” said Domenico Criscito, cracking a broad smile in what was an otherwise staid, businesslike first press conference as a new Toronto FC player.

The 35-year-old former Genoa and Zenit Saint Petersburg defender, who also has 26 caps for Italy, arrives on the undercard to Lorenzo Insigne as part of a new Italian influx at Canada’s most successful Major League Soccer side.

These two signings, plus the pending deal to bring in Federico Bernardeschi, see the soccer club reconnect with its city’s deep Italian roots. It’s a connection that could help Toronto FC relive its most successful period to date when Italian star Sebastian Giovinco attained legendary status as the major driver of that success.

Italian workers arriving to ply their trade in Toronto is nothing new. The city has seen steady immigration from Italy since the 1870s with two particularly large waves coming prior to the first world war, and a third coming after the second world war in the 1950s.

Toronto doesn’t quite rival the areas of the world with the biggest Italian influence such as São Paulo, Buenos Aires and New York, but the influence has been significant enough for Toronto to retain its own Italian flavor including the neighborhoods named Little Italy and Corso Italia.

When Italy won the 1982 World Cup, defeating West Germany 3-1 in the final in Madrid, College Street, which runs from downtown Toronto through Little Italy to Brockton Village, witnessed great celebrations. Traffic stopped and the streets were packed to such an extent that fans ran across the roofs of the cars. The celebrations spread to the surrounding areas and similar scenes were witnessed in sports bars across Ontario.

According to the 2016 census, Italian Canadians still make up 8.3% of the greater Toronto area – a total of 484,365 people. The Woodbridge area of Vaughan boasts the highest concentration of Italian Canadians in the country at 53.5%.

Many of the early immigrants arrived from Italy to help construct transport networks, mine natural resources and work in other industrial sectors. The late 19th century saw the migration of millions of Italians who made the voyage to North America for work, with many eventually settling in the north of the region, in Montreal as well as Toronto and Ontario.

Soccer itself is a sport built on the movement of people. Both in terms of passing and movement on the pitch, and the growth and development of the game off it. It is an international game that has embraced different styles, cultures and strengths within one set of laws.

Toronto’s Italians brought their love, or more accurately passion, for the game they call calcio with them to Canada. Teams were formed by Italian immigrants to play in the now-defunct Canadian National Soccer League, including Toronto Italia (the league’s most successful club), Italian Virtus, the nearby Oshawa Italians, and the Italia Flyers in Sudbury, Ontario, to the north of Lake Huron.

Though many soccer fans in the region support the clubs to which they have historical ties back in Italy, there is always extra intrigue around Toronto FC when they begin to reflect the city’s Italian diaspora.

It’s no surprise, then, that average attendances at Toronto’s BMO Field stadium peaked during Giovinco’s four seasons there, passing an average of over 25,000 for the first time in 2016, and remaining above that level until 2019.

It helped that the former Juventus man was one of the best players the club, and indeed the league has ever seen. The diminutive attacker won numerous awards in his first season in Toronto in 2015, including MLS MVP, the Golden Boot, and Newcomer of the Year. In 2017 he helped the team win its first and to date only MLS Cup.

That success saw them qualify for the 2018 Concacaf Champions League, where Giovinco finished top scorer and was named in the tournament’s best XI. TFC finished runners-up to Chivas Guadalajara after losing a penalty shootout in the second leg.

Giovinco spent his peak footballing years in Toronto and felt like a genuine world-class talent. He was not an old player after a final payday or a young player developing in the league before moving on, he was genuine star quality at the peak of his powers.

There’s a similar buzz around the similarly diminutive attacker Insigne who, though in his early 30s, still had plenty to give at the top level in Europe. He had long been linked with a move away from Napoli but it would have been a wrench for him to play for another European club. Unthinkable, probably impossible, for him to play for another in Italy.

Insigne had all the hallmarks of a one-club man, so even the move to Toronto initially came as a surprise. In the end, though, his route was similar to Giovinco’s. They even used the same agent: Andrea D’Amico.

“When they did their research on Toronto and the large Italian-Canadian community, that was part of a feel-good story for them,” TFC president Bill Manning says of the club’s attraction for Insigne and his representatives.

“This move for his family was just as important as the soccer, and that’s what really helps Toronto. When we recruit players in this market, our city and where we live is a big part of it.”

Speaking with Manning during a meeting at the Café Diplomatico in Little Italy, Insigne said: “It feels like Napoli, and that makes me feel at home.”

Superficially, Toronto FC is a very Canadian club, from the maple leaf on its crest to the striking red jerseys, but one-third Canadian red will likely be joined by some green and white in the stands where the Italy tricolor will be flown. The flag will connect with some of the fans as much as it will their new players, one of whom could become their next legendary Italian. A settled Insigne could easily become the best player in MLS, as Giovinco once was.