ORLANDO, Fla. – Though he never wore their red and white stripes, Atletico Madrid conjures up positive memories for Alejandro Pozuelo.
After rising through the youth system at his hometown club Real Betis, Toronto FC’s Spanish playmaker made his first-team debut in October 2011, and scored his first goal (and earned a red card) for the club in a La Liga clash with Atleti two months later.
The 2-0 victory for Betis proved to be the last straw for Atletico’s board, who dismissed manager Gregorio Manzano a few days later. They hired Diego “Cholo” Simeone, the charismatic Argentine who’s been there ever since, racking up one league title, a Copa del Rey trophy and two Europa League championships – seven pieces of hardware in all.
“I was fortunate to score against them in our two games – on our field, the Real Betis field – and on their field I've scored,” Pozuelo recalled to MLSsoccer.com Tuesday. “That's when the Manzano era ended and the Cholo era started.”
So a smart aleck might argue that Simeone and Atleti owe Pozuelo a thank-you note for their current period of success, arguably the most glorious segment of Los Colchoneros’ proud 116-year history. But TFC’s newest star doesn’t expect any such friendly greetings when he and the rest of the MLS All-Stars face their Spanish guests Wednesday night (8 PM ET | FS1, TSN, UniMás, TVAS, TSN 1/4/5) at Exploria Stadium.
“It's going to be a complicated game. They're a strong team and there are no friendlies for them. If we don't come out with the same intensity as them, they're going to beat us,” Pozuelo said Tuesday morning after the All-Stars’ second and final training session, acknowledging Atleti’s head-turning 7-3 exhibition demolition of Real Madrid Friday.
“They come out with a lot of intensity and they try to defend as a block, all together. And they counter a lot. It's going to be a complicated game and we have to bring the intensity to beat them.”
One of the breakout newcomers in MLS this season, Pozuelo hit the ground upon arrival in Toronto, bagging nine goals and nine assists – several of them spectacular – in his first 19 games. He calls his All-Star selection “something very nice, very beautiful,” and hopes to churn it into positive momentum for the Reds down the stretch.
It’s been a roller-coaster season for TFC, who’ve looked like world-beaters at times, beating Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls in recent weeks, but also suffering four home losses at what was not so long ago their fortress, BMO Field. That inconsistency has left them at 9-9-5, with 32 points from 23 games and a 0 goal differential, sitting one spot outside the playoff places in the Eastern Conference.
“We know it's important to get into the playoffs,” said Pozuelo. “That's the most important thing in this moment. We had a bit of a dip, but now we're doing well and it's time to push hard for the playoffs.”
However, even after all their tribulations, TFC are still just seven points back of East leaders Philadelphia with a game in hand, and won three of their last four games heading into the All-Star Game. So given the compacted, competitive nature of the table, he’s not ruling anything out for the 2017 treble winners
“I think that the team is set up to win. We'll try to finish as high as possible and if we don't finish first we'll try to do something great in the playoffs,” said Pozuelo.
“For me the most important thing is that we have the right mentality – a winning mentality,” he added. “And the team is concentrated, it's training well and it's playing well in recent games and we're on a good winning run. And I think that's the most important thing – come out with the mentality to win and try to always get the three points wherever we are.”