Toronto FC midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo put together an MVP-calibre season this year, picking up a league-leading 10 assists while scoring nine goals. He also scored in his season-ending Zoom call on Friday.
The Seville native didn’t hold anything back when asked about the abnormal MLS season, starting with the fact that he had been playing hurt the last few games — which probably accounts for the fact that he failed to pick up a goal or assist in four of his last five matches, including in TFC’s 1-0 loss to expansion side Nashville SC in Round One of the MLS Cup playoffs.
“Physically, I feel good now,” said Pozuelo, who started all 23 regular season games for the Reds this season. “But in the last game, I feel some problem in my leg. In the last 2-3 weeks, I play with injury, but nobody knows because we tried to keep (it quiet) because it’s the last month (of the season). But I was still a little injured. But this is no excuse. I played a lot of games because I want to play and I feel good to play. I like to play.”
Reflecting on the COVID-crazy 2020 season, which saw TFC finish second overall in MLS in points during the regular season, Pozuelo was adamant that the Reds do everything in their power to bring back midfielder Pablo Piatti, who joined the club this year from La Liga side RCD Espanyol and connected very well with Pozuelo on the pitch. However, Piatti, a midfielder from Argentina, missed some games due to injuries — starting with a hamstring injury he picked up at pre-season. As a result, Piatti never got a chance to fully make his mark on the club, though he record four goals and four assists.
Pozuelo said Piatti fit in very well with TFC both on the field and off.
“He’s a big professional,” said The Maestro, adding that his possibly winning the MLS MVP award is not important given the Reds’ early exit from the playoffs. “I think if he stays here, the team next year is more better than this year.”
Like the two other Canadian teams in the MLS — the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — TFC had the added burden of playing the last part of the schedule in the U.S. The Reds played their home game out of Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., and the players acknowledged that being away from home for the final 2-3 months of the season took a considerable psychological toll, particularly on those players with young children, such as Pozuelo and goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who has four young children with his wife Ania. Their youngest daughter, Callie, was born in June in Toronto.
“It’s no excuse, but it’s difficult when you’re 2-3 months away from home,” said Pozuelo, adding that he believes TFC wasn’t quite as confident a team in the final part of the season as it was at the start. “It’s very difficult when you’re not at home, when you’re sleeping in another bed, when you don’t see your kids, when you don’t see your families for 2-3 months. This is very difficult, but it’s not an excuse.
“So next year we need to improve,” he added. “We need to go (longer) than the first round. I feel we have a good team, (but) for sure we need to bring some new players.”
That’s the million-dollar question. What does GM Ali Curtis do in the off-season to bolster a club that is rich in young talent (including Ayo Akinola, Jayden Nelson and Ralph Priso), but also has a number of key players who are getting older and have had some trouble staying healthy, such as Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Justin Morrow?
“Obviously as always there will be decisions to make,” said Bradley, who underwent off-season ankle surgery and then suffered a knee injury in the summer. “I would imagine in terms of some options, some contracts running out, things like that (some players will leave). Figure out who’s here, who wants to be here, who doesn’t want to be here and then find the right ways to bring in a few new faces, some fresh blood to add to the group that we already have.
“The core group continues to be strong,” Bradley said. “I think our young players made really good progress this year. So we feel good about all that. But, again, regardless of anything … the idea is always to try to improve and have as many good players and good competitors as possible.”
The 2020 season, for all professional sports, was the most unusual in recent memory. For TFC, that meant playing in a bubble, the added quarantines of being a Canadian-based club, relocating to the U.S., and a start-and-stop schedule that featured long periods of inactivity, followed by a clusters of games jammed together.
When asked what he learned about the season, Pozuelo said: “I learned that I miss my kids a lot. That is what I learned this year. I (also) learned that in football, we cannot play every 3-4 days, because we kill the players.”