In a Major League Soccer season filled with marquee signings -- South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez! Mexico star Marco Fabian! The $9.1 million arrival of Alexandru Mitrita! Nani! -- the name Alejandro Pozuelo slipped under the radar. Part of this was down to the circumstances surrounding his arrival: He was announced after the season began and unable to join Toronto FC until the third week of the 2019 campaign. Part of it was the Spaniard's diminutive stature, easy to overlook at just 5-foot-7. Part of it was a lack of excitement surrounding TFC, a high-spending club yet one without an exciting narrative in this new era of MLS.
But now, eight months after the 2019 class of designated players first kicked a ball, Pozuelo -- along with the Seattle Sounders' Xavier Arreaga -- is the only one remaining, competing for MLS Cup on Sunday (3:00 p.m. ET, watch live on ABC).
While Pozuelo arrived quietly, he made an immediate impact when he finally saw the field, assisting Jozy Altidore's opener and scoring two of his own in a 4-0 victory over New York City FC in front of 25,447 fans at BMO Field on March 29. The former Genk captain helped TFC supporters forget Sebastian Giovinco, the Italian star who left for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia after a very public and very contentious contract dispute.
In total, Pozuelo tallied 12 goals and 12 assists in 30 regular season appearances. Advanced stats were not quite as favorable, with 17.3 expected goals plus expected assists, but that was still good enough for 11th best in MLS according to americansocceranalysis.com. Pozuelo made the All-Star and Best XI teams this year and will now play in his first MLS Cup, a run he helped spur with two goals and two assists in three postseason matches.
Ironically, had Pozuelo -- whom his former Swansea City manager, Michael Laudrup, once compared to Philippe Coutinho -- not joined TFC, he would have played in another team's playoff run earlier in the year. In the spring, Genk was in first place in the Jupiler Pro League. The club wanted its captain to stay through the postseason. Pozuelo, however, had his sights set on a move to Toronto.
"I got the opportunity to meet Ali [Curtis, Toronto FC general manager] and he explained the project and everything that he was expecting from us, I never had a second thought," he told ESPN in an exclusive interview ahead of MLS Cup. "I spoke with my wife, I thought it was the moment to move and I cannot ask for more."
And so, after a long, complex transfer saga chronicled by The Athletic, Pozuelo signed as a designated player on March 4. He didn't come cheap -- a reported transfer fee of $11.3 million plus a four-year contract at $18.2 million total -- but it worked and TFC are 90 minutes from a championship.
So far, Pozuelo is enjoying his time in the league.
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"Here in MLS you find teams with a lot of parity, what they have in budget and the players they have, so you can see there is a lot of competition between all the teams that are in the league," he said. "It shows in this season when everyone was expecting the final to be LAFC and Atlanta or New York City, and then you see now Toronto FC and Seattle. There's a lot of parity and competitiveness in MLS, and if you don't go 100% in a match, then you can lose to any other team in the league."
It feels as though Pozuelo has found a home in Canada and at TFC. "Since I came to Toronto, I knew what the expectations were from the club, and I cannot complain because this has been an incredible year individually and collectively for the team. I was named for the MLS All-Stars, I got the nomination for the Newcomer of the Year, the Best XI, and with the team we made it to the playoffs and now MLS Cup.
"I cannot ask for more right now with Toronto FC," he said.
That's not entirely true. He could ask for one more thing: a win in MLS Cup. Now that would be a memorable first season.