Alejandro Pozuelo arrived at Toronto FC under incredibly chaotic circumstances. The club had already lost a pair of talismanic figures with Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco departing for the middle east among a massive offseason reshuffle. Then came the unneeded multi-month soap opera that came with Pozuelo trying to leave a Genk club that did not want to let him go.
Despite his designated player title, Pozuelo was billed as a replacement for TAM midfielder Vazquez. After all, he played a different position than the departing Giovinco and wasn’t being brought in to be the same kind of goal threat. But as the lone designated player acquired during the window, it was clear which player he was really going to be measured against.
It was always an unfair comparison. Despite a blockbuster debut in which Pozuelo began a long and storied history of chipping NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the Spaniard was always going to be in tough to live up to one of the best players in the league’s history.
In his second season in the league, however, Pozuelo is having a season comparable to the very best that Giovinco, Vazquez and Jozy Altidore have ever produced. In doing so, he is now front and centre in the league’s MVP conversation, the first time since the aforementioned Italian that a red has been spoken in the same breath as the Landon Donovan award.
“He has incredible vision and ability to find passes, to get himself into good spots to make the opposition pay, whether that’s off a pass or a finish,” Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney told media today when asked if we are currently seeing the best version of Pozuelo. “A lot of these things are just kind of coming together, which when they do, very good players look really, really good, and that’s what Poz is benefiting from right now.”
The above chart is a simplistic offensive comparison of Pozuelo’s season so far to some of the players pulling on the TFC shirt have ever compiled. Even to Giovinco’s 2015 MVP season, Pozuelo’s numbers match up incredibly well. As with the two players themselves, it is certainly not a perfect comparison due to how many goals Giovinco scored compared to how liberal MLS can be with their assist totals. The fact that Pozuelo is even in prime-Giovinco territory, however, is impressive nonetheless.
Pozuelo’s season hasn’t been nearly as flashy as anything the atomic ant put together. There hasn’t really been the same degree of chips and skill moves as last year. Nor has there been anything to rival the curling free kicks from Giovinco, or the world class goals from Altidore, or even some of the most memorable balls played by Vazquez.
In fact, the single most memorable moment of Pozuelo’s season so far was probably a negative one, the ill-fated penalty attempt with his good friend Pablo Piatti. But what 2020 has lacked in flash for Pozuelo, he has more than made up for in production. With six goals and nine assists through 14 MLS regular season games so far this campaign, Pozuelo leads the league in chances created, “points” (goals+assists), and assists.
Part of the reason for this productivity is almost certainly the rest he was able to get during the offseason and pandemic postponement. Pozuelo admitted to being tired at times last season, and who could blame him given the fact that, per stats wizard Martyn Bailey, he averaged a game every 6.05 days for 15 and a half months between Genk and TFC.
“He obviously had some wonderful games and performances last year,” says Vanney, “but he was also doing that off of a ton of games prior to arriving here and then us just compiling the amount of games through the summer and then the rest of the year.”
Toronto’s coach believes that a “fresher” Pozuelo has been the key to his success this season. He also added that having a year in the league and with the league under his belt has helped Poz hit the ground running in 2020.
“I think his fitness level is higher partly because he’s fresher,” explains the Toronto coach. “I think he has a better feel as we’ve come into this year just about his teammates and what we’re trying to do just in terms of our principles of play and the concepts that we have.”
The reds also experimented with Pozuelo in a number of different positions last season due to injuries and fatigue among other factors. When played on the wing, his two-footed ability and passing range was limited. When played as a number nine during the playoffs and early this season, a lack of runners in behind often left him isolated. Pozuelo has spent most of this season in his prefered number 10 position.
The aforementioned acquisition of Piatti helped as well, and not just because of the pair’s brother-like relationship off the field. Since Pozuelo arrived, Toronto FC’s system has emphasized wide attackers but there has never been enough quality in those areas. This often forced Toronto to be too narrow in their attack, and allowed teams to crowd Pozuelo.
Now with Piatti, as well as the continued evolution of Richie Laryea’s game, the reds are far more dangerous out wide. This allows Pozuelo far more space between the lines in the centre of the park, something he has clearly used to devastating effect.
While it’s obviously he has been getting more comfortable with his surroundings on the field, this has translated off the field as well. Multiple Toronto FC players have gone out of their way this season to mention how Pozuelo has stepped up in the leadership department this season. Just this week, Chris Mavinga shared the following story about Pozuelo’s encouragement after the defender’s tough half against Columbus.
At half time @Pozuelo_10 came to me after my own goal and said to me don’t worry you helped us a lot for you i will score and i will make an assist and he did it against the leader ! What a player ! What a team ! #TFCLive @TorontoFC ❤️— Chris Mavinga (@Chris_Mavinga) September 28, 2020
“He’s clearer in his mind just in terms of understanding everything because his language is very good now and his ability to communicate with others is good,” said Vanney. “And you’re seeing now, his comfort level in terms of leadership has taken another step.”
His availability has also been critical during this disjointed and unique season. Only Omar Gonzalez has played more minutes this season for the reds. With key players Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore both missing time this season, having Pozuelo ready and available to start every game has been critical.
Pozuelo has undoubtedly been Toronto FC’s most important player this season, and the rest of the league is starting to take notice as well. Pozuelo was named the league’s player of the month for September, just the second player in club history, after Giovinco, to be awarded the honour. If he keeps up his current level of play, he will follow the Italian into the league’s history books as well.