Wheeler's Insider | The Pozuelo Plan

Alejandro has landed. The Pozuelo Pursuit is over. And now it’s time to get down to business.

Alejandro Pozuelo is set to make his Toronto FC debut against New York City FC Friday night (8pm ET, TSN 4/5).  The player and team are confident that Pozuelo is in proper physical condition to play a part without limitation, not only Friday, but for the duration of the 2019 season.  The question was asked at Monday’s introductory press conference about the tolls a full MLS season, coming on the heels of a completed European campaign, may mean for the player and his availability. Pozuelo is coming off 44 matches played for his former club, Genk (41 started, three substitute appearances) in Belgian First Division and Europa League play.  Those games spanned between July 29, 2018 and his final match played with Genk on March 10.

Players have joined Toronto FC mid-season and end of season before.  So a move like this is nothing new.  But what kind of challenges does having already played a full competitive season create for Toronto FC?  And is there really any injury risk to the player?  And was it considered having Pozuelo unavailable for a period of time to ensure his legs, body and mind remain fresh?

I asked Toronto FC Director of Sport Science Jim Liston about any concerns the club might have regarding Pozuelo’s fitness.  Liston says Toronto FC has done their research and are well aware of the previous workload of Pozuelo, and they are confident in the condition of the player with no apparent concerns.  'Load Management' is a loathsome term to many in Toronto, and it will be a relief that a Kawhi Leonard-like approach will not be used for Pozuelo.  Rather, understanding they will most likely need to give him a day off here or there, Pozuelo is physically strong, in his prime and is equipped to deal with a full workload.  

Toronto FC has documented his games/minutes played, ground covered, long distance running, and other relevant data from game to game.  This helps build the basis on how to prepare Pozuelo for the rigours of life in MLS and how to move forward without issue.  Liston and his staff have been in cooperative efforts with the Sports Science team with Genk, giving TFC access to training data for the player.  This kind of information is invaluable in painting a complete picture of where the player is at, how training habits can benefit the player and provides insight how TFC can best work the player into the team set-up.  The training staff at Genk was extremely helpful in this process despite the lengthy and difficult transfer.  This coordinated effort benefits both club and player.  There is no substitute for that extra layer of knowhow, using previous data on what he's done in the past to help predict the future.

Pozuelo took some time off after his last match on March 10, telling me that he and his family went back to Seville for him to regenerate and the family to spend some much-needed time getting affairs in order before a move overseas.  It allowed him to step away from the everyday demands to prepare mentally and physically for his new club.  Pozuelo tells me he feels great and the week away helped immensely.  Last week was about tapering it down for Pozuelo; this week it’s about turning it back up.  Pozuelo landed in Toronto Friday night, before having a regeneration session, including physical testing on Saturday.  Sunday was a day off before Pozuelo returned to the pitch for training the past three days.  They have eased Pozuelo back into things, not pushing too much, but everything thus far has checked out.

Liston remarks how fit and strong the player is, and how he has proven to be extremely durable over recent seasons.  In fact, over the last two seasons, the 27-year-old has played 40+ matches and over 3000 minutes in both campaigns.  This fits the bill for a team decimated by injury a season ago.  Liston has no issue with the player taking part in Friday's game, but understanding they will proceed with caution if there are any red flags.  There was no consideration giving Pozuleo more time off before playing.  A player taking too much time off actually putting them more at risk for injury and requires a much more lengthy and arduous process to build them back up to full fitness. 

It seems mental fatigue is perceived to be more of a factor than anything physical.  Pozuelo acknowledged Monday how difficult the transfer process was and how he’s happy to put the trying period behind him.  The transfer took its toll on the player in Belgium as well, with the Genk staff working with the player to help him through a difficult time.  Liston sees no sign of that mental fatigue thus far, saying Pozuelo is happy to be here, is engaged within the team and is raring to go.

Managing a player coming off a full season doesn’t come without a long-term game plan.  Liston stays there will be periods over the course of the season where fixture congestion and/or a busy schedule may mean Pozuelo will need be managed to a certain degree.  They will find days off for the player, as required.  These would be more practice sessions away for Pozuelo than actual games.  Two or three match game weeks will mean proceeding with extra caution.  But again, a stop-start approach with workload is a bad idea and worse for the player.

The top footballers in the world play multiple times, each and every week, and with international commitments, this means playing and staying match-fit nearly year around.  So while Pozuelo will be managed, it won’t be with kid gloves. Proper management on a daily, weekly and monthly basis will help the player through his first season in MLS.

Character Counts

You're going to want to check out this week’s Special Edition of the Come On You Reds Podcast.  I had the chance to sit-down with President Bill Manning and General Manager Ali Curtis to provide a behind the scenes account on the signing of Pozuelo.  It’s a fascinating listen, as the individuals in the middle of the signing detail every aspect of the pursuit of the player.  The story is a roller coaster ride, going down as the most difficult, intricate transfer this front office has ever been a part of.  For you Insider junkies out there, this is the podcast for you.

Part of the conversation reflected on the increased importance of background checks in transfer dealings.  Toronto FC learned and have moved on from mistakes in the market from a season ago.  Ager Aketxe and Gregory van der Wiel were high profile signings that didn’t meet club standards, failing to be a fit in the room and with the culture of the club.  Talent is one thing; being the right type of individual is another entirely.  Toronto FC amped up its policy in pursuing players, involving much more thorough and detailed background checks. 

The Pozuelo transfer gave TFC the chance to call on familiar and friendly faces to support initial background checks on the player.  Former MLS Best XI midfielder and MLS Cup champion Victor Vazquez and former Academy Director and TFC II Head Coach Laurent Guyot were consulted as TFC moved in on the signing.  Each provided glowing praise for the player, on and off the field.  Vazquez and Pozuelo know each other as Spanish footballers playing against one another in Belgium.  Guyot is now manager of Cercle Brugge in the Belgian first division.  

On the COYR Podcast, Manning read directly from text messages with Vazquez and Guyot providing an extra layer of assurance in the quality of the individual from trusted sources who are familiar with the workings of Toronto FC.  Vazquez pointed to the talent of player, comparing Pozuelo to himself, while also assuring the player would fit well within the group.  Guyot spoke about Pozuelo’s leadership on the field and backed up the idea his style of play would mesh well with Head Coach Greg Vanney’s system.

There is no question Pozuelo gave a very positive first public impression on Monday.  And those within the club say the player comes as advertised; committed, excited, humble and willing to participate in all club activities.  As a family-first husband and father of two young boys, living and growing in the city of Toronto was an attractive draw.  As is the football.  This is a long-term fit for player and the club.

Look for Toronto FC to continue to be diligent in getting the right people.  With two or three players still expected to join in the next month, character will remain an important determinant for TFC to commit to any incoming recruit.  And just like the Pozuelo Pursuit, patience need be practiced.  It’s about getting the right player, not just any player. 

Around the Wheeler

  • GM Ali Curtis will be travelling to South America in the coming days to continue his recruitment.  Vanney’s wish-list includes another midfielder and a player that can play a wide attacking position as someone who can get in behind the lines.  There is plenty of progression in talks behind the scenes, so movement in the near future is expected.  The MLS transfer window remains open until May 7.
  • Marky Delgado is good to go for Friday night.  The midfielder had a slight hamstring issue before the home opener.  The injury is no longer a real concern and he will be in contention for a spot this week.
  • TFC players came away unscathed from International duty this week.  Jonathan Osorio played 60 minutes in Canada’s 4-1 win over French Guiana in Vancouver Sunday.  Michael Bradley played in both games for the United States; 31 minutes as a second half substitute in a 1-0 win over Ecuador and the full 90 minutes Tuesday night in a 1-1 draw with Chile.  There are new injuries in the team.
  • The Sun’s Steve Buffery reported this week that new Canadian signing Richie Laryea is being developed as a right-back.  It’s an intriguing shift, as Laryea fits the mold of what Vanney likes in a wing-back.  He’s quick and can get up and down the wing, providing more of an attacking threat.  Laryea has played the position in College at Akron as well in Orlando, but a full-time focus to provide depth at the position makes sense.  Vanney tried to do the same with Tsubasa Endoh, who proved to be a player better suited higher up the field.  We’ll watch how Laryea progresses.
  • A win Friday would create some Toronto FC history.  TFC has never started the season with three consecutive wins.  2014 was the last time TFC won two in a row to start a season.  The best early season form came in 2017 with TFC undefeated in their opening five games. Toronto drew their first two games that season (two wins, three draws in first five games)
  • Vanney gives Friday’s opponent in NYCFC a lot of credit.  He praises their footballing approach, playing a progressive, possession style of play like Manchester City.  NYCFC has three draws in three games thus far.  They lost David Villa in the offseason, but added impressive Romanian striker Alexandre Mitriță to the fold.  Mitriță leads MLS in shots (19) and has a goal for his efforts.  Team captain Alexander Ring is now playing higher up the field and has been very good to start the season.