How do you replace a club legend and one of the greatest players in MLS history?
That was the question facing Toronto FC following the unceremonious exit of Sebastian Giovinco in January 2019, a move that saw the Italian up sticks and sign for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia following a contract dispute with the MLS club.
Giovinco’s bitter departure immediately sounded some rather loud alarm bells, and they were still ringing a little over two months later when the Toronto unveiled its newest Designated Player. Rather than going out and signing another proven goal scorer, TFC went another way – they opted for Alejandro Pozuelo, a Spanish playmaker who had most recently been in Belgium’s first division.
At the time, club management stressed that Pozuelo was not a like-for-like replacement for Giovinco, and it’s fair to say he hasn’t been. While Pozuelo has proven to be dangerous goal-scorer and creator, it will take him some time to equal the Italian forward’s remarkable run that saw him plunder 73 goals and 57 assists in 125 MLS regular-season and playoff games over four seasons.
That said, Pozuelo has been hugely influential for Toronto since arriving in MLS, and he was recognized for his efforts by being named league MVP on Monday. Pozuelo follows in Giovinco’s footsteps in becoming only the second TFC player to win the honour.
The loss of Giovinco, dubbed “The Atomic Ant,” was a bitter blow for TFC at the time, as the former Juventus star was a key figure in transforming the Reds from a league laughingstock into a championship-winning side. The diminutive Italian took the league by storm in his debut MLS season in 2015, scoring 22 goals and tallying 16 assists en route to being named league MVP and helping TFC secure its first-ever playoff berth. The following year, he guided Toronto to its first of back-to-back MLS Cup final appearances against the Seattle Sounders.
Not content to sit on his laurels, Giovinco played a starring role in Toronto’s historic 2017 campaign when it won the Supporters’ Shield, Canadian Championship and set the record for most points (69) in a single MLS regular season. TFC also exacted revenge on Seattle, besting the Sounders on a chilly December night at BMO Field to hoist MLS Cup.
Replacing Giovinco wasn’t going to be easy for a team that had grown accustomed to winning and had no desire to return to its under-achieving ways before the Italian blustered into a town like a goal-scoring hurricane. Giovinco’s departure left a bitter taste in the mouths of the TFC faithful, and Pozuelo’s arrival on the scene as his heir apparent raised questions. If Toronto needed to replace Giovinco’s goals, why was it going out and signing Pozuelo?
But management remained bullish on their new star player, with GM Ali Curtis unabashedly heralding the then-27-year-old as a “midfield maestro” at his introductory press conference. Coach Greg Vanney didn’t mince words, either. He had high hopes for his new DP, expecting him to become one of the cornerstones of the team right from the get-go.
“Similar to when we brought in Jozy [Altidore], and Sebastian [Giovinco] and Michael [Bradley] at similar ages, we can start to map out the next four years of how we’re going to build the team, and who we’re going to be building the team around,” Vanney told this reporter.
After missing the first two games of the 2019 season, the Spaniard immediately won over the sceptics – he scored a brace and added an assist in a man-of-the-match performance to mark his MLS debut in a 4-0 win over New York City FC. Like Giovinco did so many times to great acclaim, Pozuelo put on an entertaining show with his glimmering skills on the ball, more than once bringing the crowd at BMO Field to their collective feet, and leaving them begging for more.
On the half-hour mark, the Seville native made a lung-busting run to latch onto a pass from Jonathan Osorio, and then sublimely deked two NYCFC defenders inside the box before sliding the ball across the box for Altidore to slot home.
After Altidore was pulled down inside the box in the second half, Pozuelo stepped up to the spot and converted a cheeky “Panenka” penalty – chip shot – that left NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson completely embarrassed. Twenty minutes later, he lobbed an angled shot from the corner of the box with two New York defenders in front of him that majestically looped over Johnson and nestled inside the far post. Pozuelo was immediately subbed out of the game, and was given a standing ovation by the appreciative crowd. Giovinco was gone, but TFC had a new hero.
Afterwards, Pozuelo’s teammates lavished him with praise: “The guy is magic,” Osorio said.
There would be plenty more breathless moments that year, as Pozuelo laid siege upon the rest of the league in helping Toronto reach its third MLS final in four years.
If Pozuelo brought the magic in 2019, then 2020 was all about his durability and hustle. He became the first TFC player to start in every regular-season match in a season, playing an incredible 2,015 of a possible 2,070 minutes. The Spaniard finished tied for the league lead in assists (10), scored a team-high nine goals, and led MLS in combined goals and assists (19). He also ranked first in the league in scoring chances created (70) and game-winning goals (five).
Toronto finished the regular season with league’s second-best record at 13-5-5. Incredibly, the Reds went 9-1-4 when Pozuelo scored or registered an assist, underlining just how important he has become to the club. It was little wonder that when Nashville SC were able to shut him down that Toronto meekly bowed out of the 2020 playoffs at the first hurdle.
That’s not to say Toronto FC is a one-man side, nor that the Spaniard is the club’s leader. Much as it was when Giovinco was around, this is still captain Michael Bradley’s team. The midfield general sets the tone for TFC both on and off the field.
But Pozuelo is unquestionably the team’s most skilled player, a brilliant magician who has led Toronto FC to great heights with his intoxicating concoction that is equal parts guile and graft, invention and intuitiveness, and creativity and cunning, and who has allowed fans to dream big in the post-Giovinco era.