Jordan Perruzza making the most of his time with Toronto FC’s new Italian crew

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TORONTO — Young striker Jordan Perruzza is smiling a lot at Toronto FC these days.

The 21-year-old from Woodbridge, Ont., is fluent in Italian and well-versed in Italian soccer, having moved there at 13 to join Empoli’s youth setup. Now with his hometown MLS club, Perruzza is training daily and sharing a locker-room with newly arrived Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Criscito.

“It’s been amazing,” Perruzza said with a broad grin. “I’ve already started a great relationship with all three of them. I feel like their little brother.”

“It’s crazy,” he added. “You see these big names, big players that you’ve been watching your whole life and now you’re sharing a locker-room with them and they’re just regular guys.”

The arrival of the three Italians coincided with the July 7 opening of the MLS secondary transfer window.

The 35-year-old Criscito, a former Genoa captain, has already made three appearances at left back for TFC. The 31-year-old Insigne, the former Napoli skipper who signed a pre-contract with Toronto in January, has yet to see action due to a calf issue.

The 28-year-old Benardeschi only arrived in town last Friday, with the former Juventus winger being formally introduced Monday.

All three were on the training pitch Wednesday, opening the door for coach Bob Bradley to perhaps showcase an elite strike force — Spanish forward Jesus Jimenez flanked by Insigne and Bernardeschi — against visiting Charlotte FC on Saturday

“They are very good players, so I think it’s looking good,” Jimenez said in English when asked about first impressions of life on the pitch with Insigne and Bernardeschi.

Insigne is expected to play on the left with Bernardeschi on the right.

“They get along so well. You can see the way they understand each other on the field,” said Perruzza. “Their relationships on and off the field are amazing. They’re just great guys in the locker-room too. They get along with everybody.”

“All three great personalities. All different in their own way,” he added.

Bernardeschi is a big personality with a smile to match, showing off his dance moves as fans sung his praises at Monday’s news conference. Insigne appears more reserved but equally stylish — and a professional through and through. Criscito also seems all business but is said to sport a big sense of humour.

With Criscito having already been on road trips to Chicago and Montreal, Perruzza has been able to bond — and pick the veteran defender’s brain.

“Every meal I’m sitting beside him. We’re speaking about games that he’s played in, players that he’s played against. Just getting a bunch of experience from him.”

It’s been a difficult season so far for Toronto, which sits 13th in the 14-team Eastern Conference at 5-12-4. Bob Bradley, in his first season at the helm, continues to rebuild his squad after a massive roster overhaul.

The Italians are key pieces in the puzzle. Their arrival has already provided a shot in the arm, according to Perruzza.

“It feels like we’ve almost turned a new page, seeing these new faces,” he said. “They’re livening up the locker-room. They’re showing how excited they are to be here … Sometime you get scared of big players like that and you don’t want to go talk to them. But you see how close they are and how happy they are to be here. So they make it easy to approach them as well.”

Canadian international midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, obtained in a trade with Colorado earlier this month, is also a welcome addition.

The arrival of the Italians has given Perruzza a chance to use his language skills again.

“Of course, at home everyone speaks English so I haven’t really used it in the last couple of years that I’ve been back,” he explained. “It’s good for me that I get to use it a lot more and it’s good that I get to help them a lot, on the field and in the locker-room. Especially when they’re trying to speak with other teammates and I get to be there to help them..”

Toronto captain Michael Bradley, Bob’s son, also speaks Italian — a legacy of his time with AS Roma. Wingback Luca Petrasso, another local boy, also understands Italian,

Criscito’s English is pretty good and Bernardeschi won kudos for trying out his English whenever possible during his introductory news conference. Insigne, for the time being, is reliant on his Italian.

All three arrive with Italian international credentials.

Bernardeschi and Insigne both figured in Italy’s Euro 2020 championship win over England. Insigne started while Bernardeschi came on in the 86th minute and scored the decisive penalty in Italy’s 3-2 shootout victory after the game finished tied 1-1 after extra time.

All three were out-of-contract with their Italian teams.

Insigne becomes the MLS’s highest-paid player, surpassing the US$8.153 million that the Chicago Fire is paying Swiss star Xherdan Shaquiri.

Bernardeschi cost Juventus 40 million euros (C$53.4 million) in a 2017 transfer from Fiorentina, a club Perruzza knows well from his time with Empoli. The two Florence clubs are local rivals.

“I haven’t really mentioned that to him yet,” said Perruzza.

The 28-year-old Jimenez leads Toronto with eight goals, seven of which came in the first nine games of the season. The hope is Insigne and Bernardeschi will get him back on the scoresheet with regularity.

While the new-look strikeforce and strengthened midfield — with Bradley, Kaye and Canadian Jonathan Osorio — look set, the team now has to turn its attention on bolstering a defence that ranks 26th in the 28-team league, conceding 1.86 goals a game on average.

Osorio, who sat out Saturday’s 1-0 loss in Montreal, was back in training Wednesday although he continues to work his way through concussion protocols.

Perruzza, who joined the Toronto academy in January 2013, signed a homegrown contract with Toronto in August 2020, a deal that kicked in Jan. 1, 2021. The Canadian youth international spent the two previous seasons with TFC II.

Now ensconced in the first team, he has shown he can be a physical presence coming in off the bench,

“I’m enjoying every single day,” he beamed. “Every day’s getting better. I’m loving every second of it.”

He has made 18 MLS appearances over the last two seasons, including 13 this year. He opened his MLS scoring account last October with a goal that gave TFC a 2-2 tie in Atlanta.

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