“He’s a guy you want to play next to”: Mimmo Criscito proving to be a top addition for Toronto FC

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August 11, 2022
Michael Singh
August 11, 2022

Considering the star power Toronto FC acquired in the summer transfer window – Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea – the arrival of Domenico “Mimmo” Criscito may be overshadowed. But early on, the 35-year-old veteran defender has proven to be just as important of an addition as the rest.

Signed as a free agent on June 29 after spending the last 20 years playing with Serie A clubs Genoa and Juventus, and Russian Premier League side Zenit Saint Petersburg, Criscito has added a wealth of experience to TFC. Add in the 26 appearances he made for the Italian national team between 2009 to 2018, and the 35-year-old defender’s storied resume is one of the most impressive in Major League Soccer (MLS).

It’s been just over a month since his first training session with the club, and often, especially in MLS, it takes time for players who arrive from other leagues to adjust to a more North American style of play. But Criscito hasn’t needed much of an adjustment period. He’s hit the ground running, seamlessly integrating himself alongside the rest of the team.

By doing so, he’s quickly brought much needed support to a TFC backline that desperately needed an injection of stability, experience, and quality.

“I think that Mimmo can be another guy that helps push the level every day,” said Bob Bradley earlier this month when asked what Criscito will add to the group. “In his career, his experience, he's a very good professional, he's a smart player, and so when you have some experienced guys like that, we have some already, and I think he'll add to that and hopefully help raise the bar for all the rest of the players.”

As he awaited his debut, watching from a suite at BMO Field alongside good friend Lorenzo Insigne, Criscito was seen shaking his head in revulsion after Toronto FC conceded a goal against Seattle Sounders FC. He wasn’t satisfied with the level of defending he had just witnessed. He wanted more.

So, it’s not a coincidence that since stepping onto the pitch, he has not only helped raise the team’s overall level of play, but Criscito has also managed to make the players around him better. One source said that since the day he arrived, in training, the former Italian international has demanded more out of his teammates. Club captain at both Genoa and Zenit, the natural leader within has already been unleashed in Toronto.

Speaking to first-year MLS defender Luka MacNaughton at the BMO Training Grounds last week, he had high praise for Criscito.

“He’s a great player. I’m sure you can see when you watch, he just has that experience. He knows where to be, what passes to look for, just how to move on the field, and [he] has a good presence,” MacNaughton said. “He’s a guy that you want to play next to, and he’ll elevate your game when you’re playing next to him.”

Since making his debut on July 9, Toronto FC have conceded nine goals in seven matches, or 1.29 goals against per game. Three of those goals, Criscito wasn’t on the pitch for. When you compare those numbers to where Toronto FC were before the Italian’s arrival (1.89 goals against per game) it’s a stark contrast.

Individually, Criscito has elite numbers in comparison to other fullbacks in MLS when it comes to tackles (3.97 per 90), tackles won (1.99), blocks (2.19), passes blocked (1.99), clearances (3.58), and aerial duels (62.5% won). All this to say he’s holding more than his own defensively, but the improvement at the back shouldn’t be attributed to just one player.

It would be foolish to overlook what the additions of Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi have meant to the team. Their ability to keep possession in tight areas of the pitch naturally takes pressure off Toronto FC defensively. However, that’s also what has made Criscito so valuable as well – his soccer IQ is off the charts.

As an outside back, he has become the go-to outlet for the backline, and he excels at making forward passes. When comparing him to other fullbacks in MLS, Criscito is tied for the league-lead in progressive passes per 90 (7.35 per game according to fbref.com). He ranks in the 99th percentile in shot-creating actions per game and key passes per game, the 93rd in passes per game and 98th in touches per game.

Compare those numbers to rookie Luca Petrasso, who has done a serviceable job at left-back through the first part of this season, and you get a true sense of just how big of an upgrade Criscito is to TFC’s backline.

In a normal year, Criscito’s addition – a player from Serie A joining TFC in the summer transfer window  – would be a headliner. But as we know, 2022 has been anything but normal for the club as they reconstruct their side in hopes of returning as perennial contenders in 2023

However, don’t overlook the value that he’ll add to this team the rest of this campaign and next season as well.

When you factor in what he brings to the team on both sides of the ball – analytically and through the eye test – his wealth of experience off the pitch, and his ability to take corner kicks, free kicks, and penalties, with all due respect to 25-year-old Philadelphia Union left-back Kai Wagner who has been linked to a move to Europe, is it crazy to suggest that he may just be the best all-around left-back in MLS despite being 35 years old? I don’t think it’s that farfetched.

Bringing in a left-back in his mid 30s to a rebuilding team, many were skeptical about the addition of Criscito. But now that he’s here and fans have witnessed the versatile defender in action, many are now wondering if there’s a way he can stay beyond 2023 when his contract is set to expire.

He may not have received the same introduction as superstars Insigne and Bernardeschi received, he certainly doesn’t have the same commercial value and won’t sell as many jerseys as his fellow Italians, but there’s an argument to be made that Criscito will be just as important of a player for Toronto FC over the next year-and-a-half – at least.

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