While his teammates deflected and demurred, Toronto FC’s best player seemed quite content to play part-time problem-solver on Friday as the players reflected on a season that ended prematurely.
On two separate occasions Alejandro Pozuelo said that the team “for sure” needed to bring in “new players,” although he admitted that the question of how the second-best regular-season team in Major League Soccer moves forward from Tuesday’s first-round playoff exit might better be posed to the front office.
Having enthusiastically answered almost every question asked of him since he joined TFC to fill the gaping hole left by Sebastian Giovinco, the Spanish playmaker should certainly feel at liberty to give his opinion. And TFC’s brain trust might do well to listen.
Despite the untimely end – with Pozuelo admitting a leg injury had hampered the tail end of his season, including the playoff loss to Nashville – 2020 represented another step forward for a player who has rapidly become the fulcrum of almost everything the team does offensively.
With nine goals and 10 assists, Pozuelo was at the heart of everything, being directly involved in more than half of the team’s 33 goals, and easily outstripping his outfield rivals for this year’s MVP award in terms of that equation. And as the only TFC player to start all 23 regular-season games, he was the rare pillar of stability for a club that called Toronto, Orlando and Hartford, Conn., home at varying points of the campaign.
The Spaniard didn’t elaborate on where the fresh injection of talent should come from, however. He pressed the case for the front office to find a way to retain the talents of fellow designated player Pablo Piatti, who had four goals and three assists after coming over from Spain’s La Liga on a one-year contract. TFC has a team option on him for 2021.
But he also made special mention of some of the young players that head coach Greg Vanney has painstakingly tried to squeeze into the lineup even while the team fought for the Supporters’ Shield right up until the final weekend of the regular season. Players such as 22-year-old Liam Fraser, 18-year-old Jayden Nelson and Ayo Akinola, the 20-year-old striker who finished as the team’s joint top scorer alongside Pozuelo with nine goals.
“I think the club needs to do more [to give chances to the] young guys because they are the future,” Pozuelo said. “For me, if I’m the coach of the club, I try to give opportunity for the young guys because they have quality and they have a very good mentality for playing in this team.”
The team’s talisman wasn’t the only one to laud the contributions from the team’s youngest players. Omar Gonzalez, the team’s 32-year-old centre-back, noted that the academies that are now feeding these players into the first team didn’t even exist when he came into the league in 2009. The three-time MLS Cup winner joined TFC midway through last year, and admitted that from the first moment he stepped through the door at the team’s training ground, he could tell that the club was about competing for trophies and always wanted more.
Now it’s up to veterans such as Gonzalez and others to help the youth movement push TFC past 2020′s disappointment.
“I have full confidence that they want to continue to learn, that they don’t feel they made it just because they debuted,” he said. “These guys are hungry, these guys want more and it’s on us, the older guys, to not let them get complacent and to keep pushing them.”
Captain Michael Bradley also called for management to find a way to extend the team’s championship window.
“Regardless of whether you win the MLS Cup or you don’t, the idea is always to try to improve and get better and have as many good players and competitors as possible,” he said.
Bradley, whose own season was almost as truncated as the team’s owing to a couple of serious injuries that limited him to just 12 games, said that excuses around a pandemic-wracked MLS season, which stopped and started up again on four separate occasions, are getting stale.
“The situation for us was not ideal in any way,” he said. “But what can you do and quite honestly I’m tired of talking about it and I’m quite sure people are tired of hearing about it. … When push came to shove at the end of the year, we weren’t good enough.”
Now players will go their separate ways until they reconvene for a two-legged Canadian Championship final against Hamilton’s Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League. The dates for that have not yet been announced, although Canada Soccer said it would take place in the first quarter of 2021.
For now the pain of 2020 will linger a while longer, maybe more so with other MLS Cup favorites such as the Philadelphia Union, which pipped TFC for the Supporters’ Shield, having fallen by the wayside after suffering a first-round upset of its own.
After going through months of living out of Hartford hotel rooms and being away from loved ones while living a peripatetic lifestyle playing games every few days, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg summed up the team’s disappointment succinctly.
“We all know it was extremely challenging for all three Canadian teams,” he said. “We had to go through things that the other teams don’t even imagine, they see from afar but they don’t even realize it. And in two weeks people will have forgotten how hard it was for us.”