Wheeler's Insider | Pouzelo Dazzles in Debut

Toronto is still in dreamland after Alejandro Pozuelo's fairy tale start to his Toronto FC and Major League Soccer career. No need to pinch yourself; it happened, it was real and it was spectacular. Pozuelo’s star performance and the 4-0 win over New York City FC provided a glimpse of what he and the team can be with the new number 10 pulling the strings.

It was a highly anticipated, high-pressure debut for the Spaniard. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy. A prolonged and difficult transfer for a player expected to replace a club legend left room for questions as to how good he would be and how he would perform. Pozuelo approached the occasion with a quiet confidence and determined desire to leave his mark. Two goals of this highest quality; an audacious panenka penalty and a flick into the top corner were show-stoppers. Yet an eyes in the back-of-his ahead assist to open the scoring, and a collection of other moments of quality on the ball had onlookers on the edge of their seat. It takes a special kind of player for to have the press question which is his dominant foot (it’s his right, for those still unsure). It only took the better part of half an hour for to convince Toronto FC that they had their new star. MLS Player of the Week was a lock, with his debut highlight reel having been watched over 1 million times.

First impressions are lasting. And as first impressions go, Pozuelo’s sets the bar rather high. So what allowed for a player only arriving in the country seven days prior while admittedly feeling exhausted after a prolonged transfer move, to have so much success?  

Head Coach Greg Vanney tells me the group altered their preparation for the match to cater to making Pozuelo as comfortable as possible. There was much more time spent on the team structure and tactical approach than usual. The group prefers to spend more time on the ball and playing rather than working through tactical nuances. Understanding connections across the field and patterns of play; where and when to use teammates was key to adjusting to the way Toronto plays. Vanney acknowledges Pozuelo’s former team, Genk, play a similar style that helped with the adjustment. But with any new team, individual preferences and attributes mean adapting to new surroundings is a necessity. Pozuelo deserves all the credit, but the coaching staff and teammates helped create conditions for success.

Vanney admits New York’s bright start helped Pozuelo and the team settle into the game. NYCFC started on the front-foot, strong in possession without creating any real chances. This allowed Toronto to settle into the game, establishing a proper foundation and structure from the outset. Within 20 minutes, TFC adapted and Pozuelo was unleashed.  A comfort level was created, a rhythm established, and the group started to mesh.

There were contingency plans in place if and when Pozuelo found himself out of position or out of sync. Greater defensive responsibility fell to Marky Delgado, who was very good in his return from injury. And when Pozuelo drifted outside from time to time, Jonathan Osorio was tasked to take up inside positions, adjusting seamlessly. The understated story of the night was how well the rest of the team played; a feat understandably overshadowed by Pozuelo’s star performance. The game could have really ended up six or seven goals to the good for TFC. Vanney tells me the spacing by his team was among, if not the best he has seen from his team since taking over as head coach in 2014. That speaks volumes of the performance.

TFC may have won a treble and been the best team in MLS history in an historic 2017 season, but this year’s team seems like a group playing and fitting the Vanney mold, and the head coach is thrilled with what he is seeing. Versatility, formational flexibility and adaptable parts are what Vanney demands, and that’s what he’s getting. TFC switched from formation to formation with relative ease last Friday, and that was with a brand new number 10 in the middle of it all.

It’s all still a work in progress.  After all, it’s just one game with Pozuelo.  But a clear message has been sent across MLS; Pozuelo is the real deal so prepare accordingly. Teams will have to gameplan to defend him, and when they do, things will open up for others. While Jozy Altidore will score most of the goals and Pozuelo’s assist numbers are destined to impress, others will be able to take full advantage of time, space and opportunity. As long as team maintains its shape, everyone will benefit.

Vanney never had any doubt Pozuelo would succeed in his team. What has impressed him the most is his willingness to fit in and connect with the group. Per Vanney, Pozuelo told him over the phone before he arrived that he was willing to play any role or position in the name of bettering the team.  “He’s willing to play anywhere you want. And when it’s not about him, you tend to find balance a little bit quicker,” says Vanney.

The selflessness and commitment to team over individual seems to be trademark of this group.  Last year’s struggles took a toll on players accustomed to winning. Vanney calls the early season transformation “personality development,” something he can feel each and every training session.

There is a bounce within the group as they go for their fourth consecutive win on the hop. The team is a in good spirits. The coaching staff have an engaged group. The front office is full of conviction, with initial returns justifying the arduous process of bringing Pozuelo to Toronto. And you have a new star player, making it look easy on first glimpse. 

“It’s not that hard when players are willing to sacrifice,” says Vanney. Or perhaps Pozuelo just makes it seem that way.

Competition for Places

A quality squad and players showing well when given opportunity have put their head coach in a difficult spot.  Vanney has a good problem on his hands with a fully healthy squad and true competition for spots. It was a luxury not afforded at ay point last season, with injuries coming early and often. As witnessed across MLS thus far this season, losing key players in a salary cap league is a recipe for struggle.  

Vanney has a full compliment of players available for selection. That means patience for some as they wait for a turn in the team.  Vanney tells me he has and is trying to establish some consistency in the group, as a good start to the season with a favourable home schedule need be taken advantage. It’s all about balance. Continuity is the goal, while balancing the necessity of looking at different players in various roles. It’s a process.

Squad rotation is coming, however. Seven games in a busy month of May with lengthy travel will require bodies and use of the entire squad. Look for more seldom-used players to start getting a look as April ticks over to help prepare for fixture congestion. Just because a player isn’t featuring right now doesn’t mean they don’t have a significant role to play.

Around the Wheeler

  • It’s too early to get wrapped up in statistical trends, but it’s worth noting TFC is attacking in much different areas this season. It’s more dynamic, with the team working the ball for better scoring opportunities inside the area than previous seasons. TFC is last in MLS in shots from outside the area with just two per game this season.  This is a much different approach than past editions, with TFC ranking second (6.2) in shots from outside the area in 2018, 13th (5) in 2017 and second (6) in 2016. Where the shots are coming from is something worth watching.
  • Want an underdog for MLS Golden Boot? How about Altidore at 24/1. He has the tenth best odds to capture the crown. Altidore has two goals in just 111 minutes and is just four goals back of the leader Carlos Vela, who has played 450 minutes.  Altidore had six shots playing alongside Pozuelo on Friday, and admitted he should have done more with the chances presented. There is no doubt he’s going to get more chances playing with Pozuelo. If Altidore can stay fit, look for him to be right in the Golden Boot mix.  
  • Don’t worry about where Osorio is lining up on the team sheet. The Canadian international plays all over the field, starting from the outside and working his way in, back and forward as required. With so many moving parts and an active Justin Morrow regularly attacking down the left side, TFC can fully take advantage of Osorio’s ability to freelance, finding pockets of space and numerical advantages.
  • Lost in Friday’s excitement was Alex Bono’s first clean sheet since July 28.  That’s a span 16 games. Bono has been very good to start the season, only having conceded once from open play (a deflected goal, at that).
  • Jay Chapman is not only productive (a goal and two assists in just 70 minutes), but also an expert in goal celebrations. Chapman celebrated his goal Friday with a trademark Cristiano Ronaldo celebration. When asked about it after, he said it wasn’t pre-planned and was spur of the moment. He brought out a Kylian Mbappe celebration last year as well. No word yet if he’s taking further requests.
  • The Chicago Fire are coming off their first win of the season; a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls last weekend. Nico Gaitan, the Argentine International, came on as a second half substitute for his Fire debut, and looks to be in line for his first start in Toronto. It’s an experienced and talented group in attack, with plenty of questions at the back. Injuries and squad make-up leaves Chicago short-handed at full-back.  Rookie Jeremiah Gutjahr made his MLS debut last weekend as stand-in left-back, and Johan Kapplehof shifted from centre-back to the right. World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger now plays centre-back and remains a very good distributor of the ball.  He simply doesn’t have the legs to be effective in the midfield any longer. Questions across the back-line makes for a mouth-watering matchup for a TFC team with 10 goals in three games.