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TORONTO — Inter Miami coach Phil Neville called the acquisition of Toronto FC star Alejandro Pozuelo a statement, although it is unclear how long the Spanish playmaker will call the Sunshine State home.
For Toronto FC, the sale is a story yet to be told.
Toronto confirmed the departure of Pozuelo on Thursday, in exchange for US$150,000 in general allocation money ($75,000 in 2022 in $75,000 in '23), with more to come if certain performance-based metrics are met.
It's a modest return on a former league MVP, although Miami sporting director Chris Henderson said Toronto could net "somewhere between $50,000 and hundreds of thousands" more depending how well Miami does with the Spaniard.
TFC will also retain a sell-on percentage if Pozuelo is sold to a club outside MLS.
But more importantly, Pozuelo's departure opens a designated player spot for Toronto with Italian international Federico Bernardeschi believed to be in the club's sights. Bernardeschi is out of contract after five seasons with Juventus.
In signing Pozuelo in March 2019 from Belgium's KRC Genk, then-Toronto GM Ali Curtis called him "a creative No. 10, kind of a maestro."
Forty months later, with the 30-year-old Pozuelo's contract up at the end of the season, Toronto seems to be after a new shiny toy to join Italian international Lorenzo Insigne, the former Napoli captain who is yet to make his Toronto debut. Insigne and Mexican defender Carlos Salcedo are Toronto's other two designated players.
Getting Pozuelo, whose debut will depend on when he gets his visa, "sends a real strong statement about where we want to take this football club and this team," said Neville.
Neville said Pozuelo "desperately wanted to be at Inter Miami," noting he landed late Wednesday and wanted to train Thursday.
While talking up Pozuelo at a news conference Thursday, Henderson was noncommital about how long he will wear the team colours. Miami has some clean-up work to do with its roster in the wake of 2021 sanctions by the league following an investigation into the 2020 signing of French international Blaise Matuidi.
The league fined Miami in excess of $2 million, concluding it had violated salary budget and roster guidelines during the 2020 season. The infractions included incorrect roster categorization and under-reported salaries.
Matuidi, Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain and Mexican midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro occupied Miami's designated player spots in 2021.
Matuidi is no longer with the team, although he seems to have some kind of ambassador role. Pizarro has been loaned out to Mexico's CF Monterrey for the 2022 season with an option to buy but still occupies a DP spot with Miami despite the loan.
The 34-year-old Higuain has four goals in 10 league appearances this season.
"We have a few players that are out right now, out of the club, that are still on our budget and still having DP tags and other tags along with them," Henderson said. "We have to see how they play out. And those decisions we don't know yet … We will have those discussions later in the year when we have more information."
Henderson said Miami had been in talks with Toronto about Pozuelo for "a few weeks," but had also been following two other targets.
"There was a period where we felt like it wasn't going to happen, so we started to move on with one of the other players. And then it came back in to us and we thought he was the perfect fit for what we want to do this year and move forward trying to compete."
Pozuelo just marked his 100th appearance with Toronto in all competitions, becoming the 14th TFC player to reach that milestone.
“Alejandro has been a true professional since arriving here in 2019," Toronto president Bill Manning said in a statement. "He was instrumental in helping us win the 2019 Eastern Conference title, was the league MVP in 2020 and provided our fans with so many memorable goals and assists.
“He is a good person, and we wish him nothing but the best.”
Some 20 members of the 2021 TFC first team have now departed as new coach Bob Bradley continues to overhaul a club that finished second-from-last in the league with a 6-18-10 record last season.
At $4.69 million, Pozuelo was the fourth-highest-paid player in MLS this season, according to figures released in April by the MLS Players Association.
The Spaniard endured highs and lows with Toronto, with pandemic-related travel restrictions forcing the club to take up residence south of the border during his tenure. But fans will likely remember him as one of their favourite marquee players in red.
While blessed with tremendous offensive creative skills, Pozuelo seemed to have trouble fitting into Bradley's scheme of things — which has seemed fluid as the coach tested out the talent at his disposal. Bradley wanted a more all-round game from the Spaniard but had success when he gave him more freedom to roam in recent games.
Pozuelo scored four goals in his last five games in all competitions for Toronto, popping up all over the field.
Neville was clear on how he will deploy Pozuelo.
"I want him in the final third (of the field). I want him to make the final pass … We're going to get him into the best positions for him to have the best and biggest impact," he said.
At his best, Pozuelo is able to unlock defences with pinpoint passes and has an eye for the audacious when it comes to shots on goal. But injuries and some personal issues off the field in 2021 — with his family back in Spain — blunted his talents at times.
The Spaniard wears his heart on his sleeve. Having been part of championship-calibre and cellar-dwelling sides in Toronto, fans got to see both his beaming smile and frustration on the field.
In 3 1/2 seasons with Toronto, Pozuelo registered 30 goals and 34 assists across all competitions. He ranks fifth among TFC’s all-time goal-scorers behind Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, and Dwayne De Rosario.
He and Giovinco are the only Toronto players to earn MLS MVP honours.
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Pozuelo's nine goals and 10 assists led the league in combined goals and assists and netted him the award. Pozuelo was also named to the MLS Best XI in 2019 and 2020, becoming the third player in TFC history to be named to the Best XI on multiple occasions.
Pozuelo wasted little time making an impression with Toronto, delivering two memorable goals and a gorgeous assist in a 4-0 win over New York City FC in March 2019.
Pozuelo set up Toronto’s opening goal in the 29th minute, dancing past defenders, after a give-and-go with Osorio, before sliding the ball to an open Altidore.
In the 58th minute, he gave Toronto fans a flash of his mastery from the penalty spot, floating a left-footed change-up of a shot down the middle of the goal.
His goal celebration took him to the southeast corner of BMO Field under a sign that read "Lovely Day for a Victory." He pulled back his right sleeve and kissed a tattoo in honour of his grandfather Manolo and then sank to his knees in prayer at the corner flag.
Twenty minutes later, positioned just inside the NYCFC penalty box, Pozuelo took a pass from Osorio and surveyed the landscape. After mulling over his options, he lofted a left-footed chip over six-foot-three Sean Johnson as the crowd of 25,447 inside BMO Field erupted.
As the ball sailed into the far top corner of the goal, Altidore put his hands on his head in disbelief.
Pozuelo 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.
"People don't score like that every single week. You see one of those goals once a blue moon," said then-Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
"The guy's magic," Osorio said.
Osorio was seen giving Pozuelo a farewell hug on Wednesday morning before the Spaniard, two of his sons and his father drove away from the Toronto training ground in a Mercedes.
Pozuelo added to his legacy with another cheeky Panenka penalty in the 90th minute of the Eastern Conference semifinal, securing a 2-1 win over New York City FC.
Toronto fans still remember his post-game TV interview that night, when he was asked what the win said about the team.
"I think we showed today we have a good team," he said in English, adding a F-bomb for emphasis.
Toronto (5-10-3) hosts the San Jose Earthquakes (4-7-6) on Saturday.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press