TORONTO — This is not new territory for Toronto FC, having spent big on Spanish midfielders in recent years with mixed results.
The first time TFC looked to Spain for inspiration, it unearthed a true gem in Victor Vazquez, a player educated at FC Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy, and who rose to fame as one of the best players in the Belgian league with Club Brugge.
A year ago, the Reds ventured to the Iberian Peninsula for more midfield reinforcements, but they washed out in spectacular fashion. Ager Aketxe entered MLS to great fanfare and hype, but he didn’t even last an entire season before returning to his sunny homeland.
So, what to make of Alejandro Pozuelo, a Spanish creator of some repute — general manager Ali Curtis unabashedly heralds him as a “midfield maestro” — who was officially unveiled as Toronto’s newest Designated Player on Monday?
Coach Greg Vanney doesn’t mince words. He has high hopes for his new DP, and expects the Spaniard — who at age 27 is still in the prime of his career — to be one of the cornerstones of the team for the foreseeable future. In that regard, Vanney leaves no doubt that TFC is banking on Pozuelo being more like Vazquez than Aketxe.
“I think he will be [very influential], I think he should be. Anytime you sign a DP, that’s the hope and the expectation, that they become a pivotal figure in how the team plays, the success of the team, the face of the team,” Vanney recently told Sportsnet.
As influential as the previous trio of DPs that Toronto signed? Vanney didn’t even hesitate.
“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 said.
Club president Bill Manning is just as bullish on Pozuelo, who TFC had been tracking since 2014 when he played for Swansea City in the Premier League.
When the Reds signed Vazquez, he turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle, putting the team over the top as it swept all before them in a historic, treble-winning season in 2017 after falling just short in the MLS Cup the previous year.
Manning believes Pozuelo can have the same kind of impact as Vazquez, and play a major role in helping to restore Toronto, fresh off a disastrous 2018 MLS campaign, to its former place in the pantheon of top-tier sides in the league.
“As we continue to grow over the next three to four years, he’s going to be a focal point of that,” Manning promised during Monday afternoon’s press conference at BMO Field.
Comparisons to Vazquez are inevitable, especially with Pozuelo coming to Toronto via Genk, another high-profile club from the Belgian first division. They’re both playmakers, both game-breakers, but Vanney believes Pozuelo has more an eye for goal than his countryman.
Still, the similarities outnumber the differences, and when Vazquez put in a transfer request and was sold to Qatari club Al-Arabi in January, the Reds quickly turned their sights on the one man who they thought would be a natural replacement for their former star midfielder.
“What we all knew when we lost Victor was … we wanted someone who could pull the strings. Alejandro is a guy who can pull the strings, and someone who can manage a game, and make the special plays that create goals,” Manning said.
Not only did Pozuelo consult with Vazquez to get a lay of the land in Toronto before signing with the MLS outfit, but TFC management also reached out to Vazquez, who played against Pozuelo in the Belgian league, to get his take on his fellow Spaniard. Manning liked what he heard from Vazquez.
“One of the highest compliments you could ever get, Victor Vazquez gave him. He said, ‘Bill, he’s a young Victor Vazquez.’ That was about as good as a compliment as you can get with us and our group,” Manning explained.
Looking at Pozuelo’s track record in Belgium, it’s not difficult to understand why TFC is so high on the Spaniard and why they feel he can take MLS by storm.
In four seasons with Genk, Pozuelo made close to 180 appearances, scoring 25 goals with 60 assists across all competitions. During the 2016-17 campaign, he led the Belgian league with 11 assists, and he was tied for second overall with nine during the 2018-19 regular season.
It’s not just Pozuelo’s exploits on the pitch that impressed TFC, though. It’s his character, too. A pair of high-profile miscalculations — both Aketxe and Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel signed with Toronto last year but are no longer with the team after falling out with the club — meant that management couldn’t afford to further disrupt the locker-room by getting this DP signing wrong.
They needed to find another player in the mould of Vazuez, someone who could seamlessly mesh with the existing group of players, both on and off the field.
Vanney is confident that Pozuelo won’t have the same issues fitting in as Aketxe and van der Wiel did.
“Aside from Genk fans being upset about his departure, nobody says a bad word about Pozuelo the person or Pozuelo the player. Everybody says he’s phenomenal person, a phenomenal guy, a team guy,” Vanney offered.
“Every conversation I had with him, it was about him saying he’d do whatever is asked of him. Sometimes when players say that, you can be skeptical. But it reiterates what everyone else has said about him, that he is an ‘all-in guy.’ That’s what I sense with my conversations with him.”
As for Pozuelo, the Spaniard trained with his new teammates on Monday morning, and he is expected to make his MLS debut on Friday when Toronto hosts New York City FC at BMO Field.
Even after a protracted, and at times testy negotiating process between Genk and TFC over the transfer of Pozuelo, and playing a full season in Belgian, the Spaniard is set to hit the ground running. No break or adjustment period required.
“It was a very difficult moment for me, my family, and my agent. But I always felt the support from [TFC],” Pozuelo said on Monday.
“I feel like there’s a relief now that I’m here, and I’m just looking forward to playing.”