TORONTO – Alejandro Pozuelo sure knows how to make an impression.
The Spanish maestro did just that on his debut for Toronto FC, scoring twice against NYCFC on March 29, 2019 at BMO Field.
It was another such memorable occasion that takes centre stage as the Match of the Week on Friday at 7 pm at TorontoFC.ca.
Unbeaten through the end of the regular season, TFC passed the first hurdle that the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs put in front of them with that extra-time thriller over D.C. United on home turf. In order to pursue their trophy hunt further, however, it would be required that they take the show on the road.
The first stop was New York City and an Eastern Conference semifinal clash against NYCFC.
Days removed from that emphatic 5-1 win over D.C., a match previously featured in this series, Toronto were feeling pretty good.
“[We knew we had to be] ready for the game, a difficult game, because NYCFC, for me, is one of the best teams in controlling the ball,” said Pozuelo on Thursday. “We play football, but we know when we play against New York it will be difficult.”
With both teams preferring to be possession-based, it always going to be a contest of wills; in a one-off affair with progression at stake the team that were more able to play their game would emerge.
“Playoffs, we go to New York,” listed Pozuelo of some of the factors involved. “We knew they have the pressure because they are the favourite team in this period and we will go to enjoy the game without this pressure.”
“One of the best games we played last year,” he recalled. “We played really good, we pressed higher, we kept control all game and we win, more importantly in the semifinal.”
Both sides knew what was at stake. Toronto had the better of the first half chances – Justin Morrow, Pozuelo himself and Jonathan Osorio drew some excellent saves from Sean Johnson, but New York were dangerous.
On such occasions, patience is indeed a virtue.
“We know, and they know, it’s a semifinal, so we played ‘We’ll see,’” explained Pozuelo. “We will see the game. We will see what they give, we will see what we give to the game.”
Come half-time, the lack of a breakthrough was not a concern.
“We had two or three very good chances to give us confidence for the second half. In the dressing room in the middle of the game, we knew we can push a little higher because if we play like in the first half we will win the game,” recalled the midfielder. “And in the second half, it was the same, we have the control.”
That first goal would come shortly after the restart.
And as is so often the case, it was a matter of who blinked first, which team would make the mistake and which would punish it.
A ball was sent forward by Auro that required attention from the NYCFC defense. They attempted to handle it with a series of headers, but Pozuelo was ready to pounce should any falter.
“A little bit lucky,” he admitted.
“I go for the keeper because I know the defender wants to give the ball [to him],” Pozuelo explained. “Normally, if he tried this pass ten times, nine times they give a good ball for the keeper. But in this moment I went for this, I went for the defender to give the ball short to the keeper and when it came to my feet, I said, ‘Oh yes, he gave me a perfect ball to score.’”
Goals change games and so with the clock ticking down it was only natural that the home side, now trailing, would redouble their efforts. But Toronto, on short rest from 120 minutes against D.C., were eager to meet it.
In knockout games though, margins are thin and a momentary lapse saw Ismael Tajouri-Shradi pull NYCFC level in the 69th minute.
“When we scored the first goal, we had this confidence to keep pushing, to run, to give the maximum, but when they scored, we say, ‘Okay,’” accepted Pozuelo. “Difficult moment because they play at home, the people are pushing a lot in the stadium, but the coach, Greg Vanney, had a good call: keep calm, there is still time to play, to score.”
“And when we have this opportunity,” foreshadowed Pozuelo. “This is the moment to take the opportunity in the hand.”
The stage was set for a dramatic conclusion.
In the 88th minute, Richie Laryea surged into the box, a move quickly becoming trademark, drawing a rash tackle from Ronald Matarrita, putting the result in the balance, on the boot of Pozuelo or in the hands of Johnson in goal.
The two were already very familiar with each other from twelve yards having already faced off on three occasions with Pozuelo scoring twice and Johnson denying the other.
As soon as the referee whistled, Pozuelo knew the opportunity would fall to him.
“I have this responsibility in the team. Everybody knows I take the penalties,” he said. “And I like it because I like to take this responsibility in this moment.”
In that March debut, Pozuelo chipped Johnson from the penalty spot with a Panenka. He had beat Johnson in their second duel as well come September, but later that same game, with victory on his foot, Johnson got a hand to the effort.
Famously, Pozuelo’s debut Panenka was foretold: he had alerted Bill Manning to his plan. This time, it was improvised.
“I decided in the moment. Not before the game, I decided when I shot the penalty,” he explained. “It was in one of the last minutes of the game. For the keeper, in this period, it’s difficult to stay in the middle; they need to decide right or left.”
“It’s a difficult decision to take a penalty in this situation like Panenka, because it’s a semifinal, if we score we win,” he added. “It’s difficult, but I like this pressure to take a penalty like this.”
The reaction of his coaches and teammates, according to Pozuelo, was accurate: “They told me I’m a little bit crazy. They know I’m a little bit crazy. This is good.”
With some five minutes of stoppage-time, Quentin Westberg in the Toronto goal was called upon to protect the lead and when the final whistle blew the emotion of victory overtook the side, Pozuelo included.
“I remember everything,” he laughed. “When I said ‘the f-ing good team,’ I said it because of the emotion.”
He was not used to being put in front of a camera in the heat of the moment.
“In Europe or Spain, when we have an interview normally it’s after the game, you go to the dressing room, you go to the shower, the possession goes down and you go to the interview,” he explained. “But, in this situation, the interview came directly one second after the referee whistled. I'm very excited, very happy for my team, and this is why I say this word.”
He apologized profusely for the language, though it did make an excellent T-shirt, a copy of which Pozuelo was presented with ahead of the MLS Cup Final.
TFC would ride that jubilation into the Eastern Conference Final against Atlanta United FC a week later, another match featured in this series.
“We go with a lot of confidence,” summed up Pozuelo. “Nobody knows this, but inside that room everybody knew when we go to Atlanta, we go to win because we have this confidence, this emotional confidence to say, ‘We went through D.C., we go to New York, we win. Okay, we go to Atlanta, and we will win the game.’”