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Toronto FC GM Ali Curtis looks back on the 2019 with a range of emotions and looks forward to even bigger things, especially from a guy named Pozuelo

SEATTLE — Sitting inside a coffee shop located just outside of the lobby of the team hotel on Friday, Toronto FC GM Ali Curtis shook his head, smiled and sighed just a little bit when asked what it means to have his club in Sunday’s MLS Cup final at CenturyLink Field.

“A range of emotions,” Curtis said. “Happy, elated, proud …”

But probably more than anything, relief.

“It’s been a tough year,” Curtis told the Toronto Sun. “It’s been a really tough year and a lot of that stress was over having not made the playoffs the year before. With a big club, you can’t miss the playoffs twice. You just can’t.

“It was just a stressful, tough, tough year,” he said.

That stress came from many sources, but mostly the result of the Reds not being able to get on a roll during the first two-thirds of the 2019 season because of injuries and international assignments. TFC secured a playoff spot only by going 10 straight games without a loss.

“But I think throughout all those moments, we always felt that we had a really good team,” Curtis said. “Just for whatever reason, we just didn’t get the results. Every day of the week I would say, ‘I’d take our team over that team.’ So I’m really proud of our group, of our coaching staff, of our players. Throughout all the different highs and lows, there was still a lot of strength in our mentality and in our conviction. We always felt this team was a playoff team.”

Curtis joined the Reds in January after former GM Tim Bezbatchenko left to join the Columbus Crew as president. Not having made the playoffs the year before and losing two star players in Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez, there was a ton of pressure on TFC’s rookie GM, and it was immediate.

His first order of business was to find a way to replace Giovinco and Vazquez. That answer was Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo.

But getting Pozuelo released from Belgian side KRC Genk was an exhausting and drawn-put process. A “slug-fest” Curtis called it.

There were times when he wasn’t certain it was going to get done, even though Pozuelo was a player Curtis was certain would be a huge help to the Reds — this year and going forward.

“I remember being in the hotel in Brussels when I was expecting to get more traction on the deal than I got and it just being really disappointing and really frustrating and really just deflating, emotionally and physically,” he said. “I remember in that moment, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’

“But there was also a real sense of conviction — almost a mission — to really make this thing happen and be all-in,” Curtis added.

With the help of team ownership, president Bill Manning, his staff and the coaching staff, Curtis got the deal done and, of course the rest his history.

Pozuelo started his career with the Reds with a bang, scoring two goals and adding an assist in his Toronto debut on March 29 in a 4-0 victory over New York City FC at BMO Field, and carried on from there.

Last week, Pozuelo became just the fifth player in TFC history to be named to Major League Soccer’s Best XI, a year-end recognition of the 11 most outstanding players in the league.

The Reds have a number big pieces on the roster: Michael Bradley’s leadership and generalship at midfield, Altidore’s scoring touch, Omar Gonzalez’s presence at centre back, Quentin Westberg in goal, contributions from blue-collar guys like Nick DeLeon, Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio … but there is no doubt that Pozuelo has been the big revelation for TFC fans this year, and not just during the regular season.

The 28-year-old has been huge in these MLS Cup playoffs, particularly with Altidore unable to play because of a quad strain. (Altidore’s participation in Sunday’s final is still up in the air). And what has Curtis most excited is, he believes Pozuelo will have an even better season next year.

“We’ve already done some work to create a strength-and-conditioning plan that allows him to get rest (during the off-season), but also allows us to strengthen and condition him so that, come the beginning of the season in February, he’s ready to go,” Curtis said.

As great as Pozuelo’s first season in the MLS was, Curtis said there were a couple of barriers that held him back from having an even better year — the fact that he jumped to MLS without having a break from his season with Genk and the unfamiliarity of the new league.

“Anytime you have more information, you tend to make better decisions. And now he has more information about the players that he competes against, about the league, about the different climates, altitudes, venues … he has that information and he’ll be able to make better decisions, will be able to perform in a different way,” Curtis said. “He’ll have more information about his (teammates) and also he’ll get some rest in the off-season, and that’s important because he’s coming off a European schedule and he didn’t have a break at all.”

Pozuelo admitted there were times this season when he was extremely fatigued and sore. Curtis said the Seville native will be better prepared for the rigours and physicality of the MLS season next year.

And the best thing of all, Curtis said, is that Pozuelo will undoubtedly be even more of a team leader next season. He was, after all, the captain at Genk.

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