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Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo takes a shot on goal during overtime of the team's MLS soccer playoff match against Nashville SC, on Nov. 24, 2020, in East Hartford, Conn.

Jessica Hill/The Associated Press

In the wake of Alejandro Pozuelo’s spectacular three-point debut for Toronto FC in March, 2019, team president Bill Manning surprised the Spaniard with a framed photographic reminder of a special night.

Pozuelo’s joy at the unexpected gift was plain to see as he has gazed at the memento.

It was an early sign of the kind of player Toronto had signed. A star who burns bright on the football pitch. But off the field, a family man without airs – and appreciative of those around him.

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“He’s fit in with our group on a lot of different levels,” veteran Toronto fullback Justin Morrow said. “Obviously his technical ability, his acumen, his high IQ for the game helped us on the field. But as a person he’s been a huge value-add to our club. He’s fit in seamlessly with the guys. He pushes us along in the right ways. He jokes in the right ways.

“It’s not always easy to get that balance right. And from the moment he showed up here he’s done that. And so he’s been a huge positive for us.”

Pozuelo’s talents were recognized Monday by the league’s highest individual honour – the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award. The 29-year-old attacking midfielder from Seville, Spain, won over Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake, Seattle midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and forward Jordan Morris, and Los Angeles FC forward Diego Rossi.

Pozuelo won 35.35 per cent of the vote by MLS players, club officials and media. Rossi was second (17.80 per cent), ahead of Lodeiro (10.58), Morris (8.49) and Blake (4.91).

All five were named to the league’s Best XI, while Blake was also voted goalkeeper of the year.

Pozuelo joins Italian star Sebastian Giovinco (2015) as the only Toronto player to be named MVP. But while the diminutive Italian exuded swagger off the pitch, Pozuelo is just one of the guys despite ranking seventh in the league last year with a salary of US$3.8-million.

A finalist for top player honours in Belgium during his time with KRC Genk, he has found a home in the North American league.

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“Since I arrived in Toronto, MLS has positively surprised me a lot,” he said, through an interpreter, from Spain on Monday. “I know last season was a great year, especially it being my first year with Toronto FC in the league. Going through an adaptation period, which I think was quick, the team had a great run last season, and we made it to the final.

“I feel that this year, I knew more about the league, the other teams and fields, and I could say this time was easier for me, although it has been a tough year for us [Canadian teams]. Individually, I have felt more comfortable, and with teammates, I believe that we had a better season this year.”

Toronto (13-5-5) finished with the second-best record in the league, despite having to play all but four games away from home due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. Still, the season ended early, in a 1-0 first-round playoff loss to expansion Nashville.

Despite all the bumps in the 2020 road, Toronto averaged 1.91 points a game – well above the 1.47 average in 2019.

Pozuelo was a big part of that success. Toronto went 9-1-4 when he scored or had an assist this season.

The Spaniard tied for the MLS lead in assists with 10, while finishing tied for eighth in goals with nine in 23 games. He led the league in combined goals and assists (19), chances created (70) and game-winning goals (5).

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He showed his durability by becoming the first TFC player to start in every regular-season match in a season. He ranked ninth in the league in minutes played (2,015 minutes), missing just 55 minutes of the regular season.

“Since joining our club in 2019 Alejandro’s contributions on the field and in the locker-room have been incredible,” Manning said in a statement. “This year he emerged as one of our leaders and was the chief catalyst as our team finished with the second-highest points per game in the league. This is a well-deserved MVP award for Alejandro.”

Pozuelo is repaying the favour by being an advocate for MLS.

“I have a lot of friends in other leagues, Spain, [England’s] Premier [League], Italy, and a lot of my friends find the MLS interesting,” he said. “They value the good level this league has. For example, my teammate [Pablo] Piatti who arrived from Espanyol, Spain, said that he notices differences in little details, on how well they are treated as a family by the club, on how fast the league is growing, and people can enjoy beautiful soccer.

“Although he couldn’t see it himself, I did notice last year there’s always a great environment in the MLS stadiums. A lot of friends from Spain want to come to play to the MLS, but we know it will become harder, and that’s a good sign.”

Pozuelo has been a walking advertisement for MLS since first taking the field in TFC colours March 29, 2019, in a 4-0 win over New York City FC.

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Pozuelo set up Toronto’s opening goal in the 29th minute, dancing past defenders, after a give-and-go with Jonathan Osorio, before sliding the ball to an open Jozy Altidore. In the 58th minute, he gave Toronto fans a first hint of his mastery from the penalty spot, floating a left-footed changeup of a shot down the middle of the goal.

Twenty minutes later, there was the piece de resistance.

Positioned just inside the NYCFC penalty box, Pozuelo took a pass from Osorio and surveyed what lay ahead. After mulling over his options, he lofted a left-footed chip over Sean Johnson into the top corner of the net as the crowd of 25,447 inside BMO Field erupted.

Pozuelo also had a goal disallowed for offside in the 25th minute and fired a free kick just wide in the 50th.

He became the 17th player in MLS history to score two goals in his first game and just the third to score a pair of goals and add an assist in his debut (joining Brian McBride and Fredy Montero, according to the Elias Sports Bureau).

It is rare that Pozuelo does not manufacture a bit of magic in the game. Able to execute his remarkable vision with both feet, he is a defender’s nightmare.

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This season, Pozuelo was chosen MLS Player of the Month for September and was named to the MLS team of the week on five occasions. While his output dropped in the stretch drive – he was nursing an undisclosed injury and several key teammates were laid up – it was still a season to remember.

After opening Toronto’s 2020 scoring account in the Feb. 29 curtain-raiser from the penalty spot in a 2-2 tie at San Jose, Pozuelo and the rest of the league went into lockdown after the next game.

He returned to work with a vengeance in July at the MLS is Back Tournament, setting up Toronto’s first five goals – including four by Ayo Akinola. He was also red-hot in September with four goals and two assists in six games.

He scored in Toronto’s first match in October, but cooled off after that with two goals and one assist in TFC’s final nine games, including the playoff loss.

Signed as a designated player in March, 2019, Pozuelo has 23 goals and 25 assists in 61 appearances in all competitions for Toronto. He already ranks fifth in the club’s goal-scoring ranks behind Giovinco (who leads with 83 in 142 appearances), Altidore, Osorio and the retired Dwayne De Rosario.

Pozuelo dedicated his MVP award to his wife and two children, who were in Toronto as he played south of the border, and family and friends back home in Spain “for always supporting me.”

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