TORONTO — An unfulfilled Toronto FC season that ended in a first-round playoff exit and the departure of popular coach Greg Vanney could still deliver something to celebrate Monday.
Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo is a leading contender to win the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award. The 29-year-old from Seville is up against Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake, Seattle midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and forward Jordan Morris, and Los Angeles FC forward Diego Rossi for the honour.
All five were named to the league's Best XI, while Blake was also voted goalkeeper of the year.
Also selected to the league all-star team in his 2019 debut season, Pozuelo is bidding to join Italian star Sebastian Giovinco (2015) as the only Toronto player to win the MVP award.
For Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin, Pozuelo is the cream of the current crop.
'"He's one of the most fun, entertaining players to watch, plays with both feet, can get goals and assists," Curtin said prior to meeting Toronto on Oct. 3.
The Spaniard tied for the MLS lead in assists with 10, while finishing tied for eighth in goals with nine. He led the league with five game-winning goals.
Pozuelo was also durable, the only Toronto player to start every game this season. He ranked ninth in the league in minutes played (2,015 minutes), missing just 55 minutes of the regular season.
"In my eyes, he's arguably the best player in the league," Atlanta midfielder Mo Adams said prior to facing Toronto in mid-October.
"You've just got be mindful of not giving him too much space in terms of him getting his head up and threading passes between the lines," he added. "He's not as much of a dribbler like (Darlington) Nagbe or someone like that. But he's really capable of splitting teams with his vision."
"He's definitely a great player," added Atlanta defender Miles Robinson. "He finds those pockets and picks those passes that makes him elite in the league."
Toronto's reliance on Pozuelo was shown by the fact the team went 9-1-4 this season in games he registered a point. Including the playoffs, TFC was 4-5-1 when he didn't.
Nursing an undisclosed injury for the stretch run, Pozuelo was held off the scoresheet in four of Toronto's final five regular-season games (2-0-3). He scored the 84th-minute winner from the penalty spot in a 2-1 victory over Inter Miami on Nov. 1.
Still ailing, Pozuelo was not at his best in the 1-0 playoff loss to Nashville SC on Nov. 24. Injury, fatigue and months of living in a hotel room away from family appeared to take their toll.
Whether Pozuelo's form in the final games of the season impacts MVP voting remains to be seen. Voting closed Nov. 9, the day after the regular season ended.
But he was dominant for stretches of the campaign.
After opening Toronto's 2020 scoring account in the Feb. 29 curtain-raiser from the penalty spot in a 2-2 tie at San Jose, Pozuelo and the rest of the league went into lockdown after the next game.
He returned to work with a vengeance in July at the MLS is Back Tournament, setting up Toronto's first five goals — including four by Ayo Akinola. He was also red-hot in September, earning MLS player of the month honours with four goals and two assists in six games.
He scored in Toronto's first match in October, but cooled off after that with two goals and one assist in TFC's final nine games, including the playoff loss.
Pozuelo registered 12 goals and 12 assists in 30 games in his debut year despite joining Toronto on the heels of a full season in Belgium with KRC Genk.
He came into this season refreshed, with more time off during the lockdown. The energy showed in his renewed commitment to defence.
"People will talk about his right foot and his left foot and his ability to play a final ball and his ability to shoot from distance with both feet," Curtin said in the leadup to Philadelphia's decisive 5-0 win over visiting Toronto on Oct. 24. "But what I actually like the most with his game is just how hard he works defensively for a team.
"Gone are the days of the No. 10 that just kind of stood in the centre circle, Carlos Valderrama style. He's a No. 10 that works both sides of the ball, does so many things for them and is obviously the key to us trying to contain them the best we can.
"It starts with him. The more times you can make him give up the ball and play square and backwards, we see that as a real victory. What he's great at is finding space and creating overloads. And he doesn't make wrong decisions on the ball."
New York City FC coach Ronny Deila was more measured in his approval, declining to pay too much tribute to the talented Spaniard.
"For me it's not about one player," the Norwegian, speaking prior to his club's 1-0 win on Oct. 28, said when asked how one limits the damage Pozuelo can do. "He's a good player but he's not that good (a) player. He's not (Lionel) Messi.
"He's really good, but for me when we defend good as a team, we stop him getting the ball in the areas that he's dangerous (in)."
Pozuelo continued to shows his mastery of the penalty with five successful spot kicks this season. His Nov. 1 effort against Miami's John McCarthy was his 11th successful spot kick in 12 attempts in MLS regular-season and playoff action.
"We already knew it was a goal before he even took it," Akinola said after the game.
New York City FC's Sean Johnson is the only MLS 'keeper to deny Pozuelo (Sept. 11, 2019). But he has also been beaten four times from the penalty spot by the Spaniard.
There was a second failed attempt when Pozuelo tried to pass the ball to teammate Pablo Piatti in a 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact on Sept. 1. Piatti scored, but the goal was waved off due to penalty box encroachment and the attempt does not count in Pozuelo's official penalty kick history.
Pozuelo developed a close rapport with Piatti on and off the pitch in the Argentine's first year with Toronto, and made it clear he would like to see him back. That depends on whether Piatti is willing to accept a non-designated player contract.
A popular member of the squad with a seemingly endless supply of both moves and haircuts, Pozuelo showed his human side when he was asked at the club's end-of-season media availability what he had learned during a difficult season that forced TFC to play all but four games away from BMO Field due to the pandemic
"I learned I miss my kids," said the father of two. "A lot."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2020.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press