Move over Auston Matthews. Someone else made a spectacular debut for a Toronto sports team.
Alejandro Pozuelo did not score four goals like Matthews did in his first game for the Toronto Maple Leafs almost three years ago but he dominated Friday’s game for Toronto FC in exactly the same way.
The 27-year-old Spanish midfielder sent everyone home talking about him after his first Major League Soccer game, a 4-0 win for the Reds over New York City FC. It was TFC’s third win in as many MLS games, marking the first time since 2017 the Reds won three games in a row.
By game’s end, the Reds’ newest designated player eased the considerable pain of losing both Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez from last year’s team.
When he was asked if he knows who Matthews is, Pozuelo shot a quizzical look at the TFC public-relations person who was helping translate some of the more lengthy questions. “No,” he said with a shake of the head.
Well, he’s only been in town for barely a week and they don’t show many Leafs games in Seville, his hometown, or Belgium, where he played for four seasons before asking for a transfer to the Reds. But Pozuelo said he won’t forget his first night playing for Toronto, something Matthews can say as well.
“I’m very happy. It was a magical night,” Pozuelo said. “It will be impossible to forget this night. Everything worked very well. We have to keep working to keep this momentum.”
And it was Pozuelo’s night, despite the fact he and his new teammates have had only a few days to practice before his debut. Pozuelo had to wait out protracted negotiations for his transfer from the Belgian side Genk and the rest of the Reds were coming off an international break.
But Pozuelo got to work quickly. He set up Jozy Altidore’s first-half goal with a tremendous move and then scored twice himself in the second half to have a hand almost all of the Reds’ goals. Jay Chapman scored the other TFC goal.
Pozuelo’s first goal came on a penalty kick, beating New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson with a Panenka, soccer’s version of baseball’s lob-ball, named after the player who invented the shot in the 1970s. This was no last-second decision, according to TFC’s newest star.
Penalty kicks are a sore spot with this team, as the 2016 MLS Cup was lost on penalty kicks along with the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League final. Giovinco, for all his greatness in MLS, was maddeningly inconsistent on penalty kicks.
So it was no surprise when TFC president Bill Manning brought up the subject last weekend over dinner with Pozuelo.
“The president said we need some guys to shoot the penalty,” Pozuela said. “I said, ‘I come to shoot the penalty. The first penalty I shoot I do the Panenka.’
“He said you’re crazy. I say, ‘No, always the first penalty [of the game] the keeper go right or left. I think it impossible the keeper stay in the middle.’ So I try and do good.”
As if that trick shot was not enough, Pozuelo lobbed another shot over Johnson in the 79th minute to make it 3-0 and then received a standing ovation from the 25,447 fans at BMO Field when he was subbed out. It even made up for whoever thought paying a soccer game at 8 p.m. in late March was a good idea.
Pozuelo admitted that one was a first for him: “With the Panenka, yes, I shoot sometime in Belgium, but with the second goal I never score like that.”
The Reds controlled the ball for almost the entire first half with Pozuelo at the centre of it all. Early in the game, Reds head coach Greg Vanney had Pozuelo playing up front beside Altidore.
However, that quickly changed with Pozuelo dropping behind Altidore, in the manner Vanney said earlier in the week he saw them working together. The fireworks followed quickly, although first there were two Toronto goals ruled offside.
The TFC fans saw the tantalizing possibilities of Pozuelo and Altidore working together in the 30th minute on a beautiful goal that stood. Midfielder Jonathan Osorio did the spadework, showing excellent patience in working the ball up to Pozuelo.
The Spaniard took the pass, made a slick move to dribble his way to the middle and, with his back to Altidore on the right side, made a blind pass right on the big striker’s foot. Altidore had all the room he needed to step up and fire the shot into the net. It was as if they had been working together for years.
The sudden burst of brilliance produced a compulsive cheer in the press box, a place where such things are bad form. But it was understandable, given the display of skill on the field.
Vanney allowed Pozuelo’s debut was one for the ages but said that wasn’t what made him happy. It was the return to the team play the Reds showed in 2017 in winning both the MLS Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup.
“It was within the group,” Vanney said. “It wasn’t this overwhelming performance in terms of trying to do too much. Things kind of flowed and came together in a nice way.
“It’s better to have those types of performances than have one guy play out of his mind and the rest of the team not do so well.”
As the half counted down, Pozuelo stepped up once again, forcing Johnson to make a nice save. He took a pass wide and then cut to the middle for a shot that was headed to the top of the net. Johnson jumped and managed to get a hand on the ball to deflect it over the goal.
Going into the game, there was a sense TFC was not letting itself get too hopeful over Pozuelo’s debut. After all, he was in a new country and a new league and there had to be an adjustment period. Then again Pozuelo was in the midst of the Belgian season, so he was not coming over rusty from an off-season.
Aside from Altidore, Pozuelo also clicked immediately with Osorio. The latter happens to be fluent in Spanish and he said this helped ease the transition for Pozuelo.
“I feel that he trusts me,” Osorio said. “I felt we really linked up good today. We’ve still got a lot to learn but I feel it will only get better.
“The guy is magic. We saw it [Friday night]. I can’t wait to play the rest of the year with him. I think even more than the win is the way we played. We dominated the game. It was huge satisfaction, exactly how we wanted to start the season.”