MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

What the Alejandro Pozuelo trade means for Inter Miami CF and Toronto FC

Just before the Secondary Transfer Window officially opened, news of a bombshell trade broke on Tuesday evening and went live Thursday morning.

Alejandro Pozuelo, the 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, was headed from Toronto FC to Inter Miami CF in a rare trade involving a Designated Player. The move saw Miami send Toronto $150,000 in General Allocation Money in exchange for the Spanish playmaker, as well as other conditions.

In corresponding reports, Toronto are close to signing Italy international Fernando Bernadeschi on a DP deal. He’s been a free agent upon leaving Serie A powerhouse side Juventus.

Those are the basics. Now, there’s a lot to unpack here.

The value was opening a DP spot

If you look at a former MLS MVP garnering just $150k GAM in a trade and think “woah, that’s really cheap,” you’re right! But Pozuelo’s contract is up at the end of the 2022 season, meaning it’d only make sense for a club that could (potentially) secure his long-term future.

That future was very clearly not going to be in Toronto, with the club extremely non-committal whenever asked about it for months, all while Pozuelo was saying he wanted to stay.

Anyway, the real value for Toronto in this deal comes from opening a DP spot. It allows them to sign Bernadeschi, which The Parleh’s Michael Singh says is happening.

Bernadeschi, 28, is a free agent after his contract with Juventus expired. He’s in the prime of his career and has 38 caps with Italy’s national team, including taking part in the Euro 2020 Final last summer, which the Azzurri won over England on penalty kicks.

The winger, who’ll slot opposite Lorenzo Insigne on the left, never nailed down a regular role with Juventus, but starred for Fiorentina before joining Juve. Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto’s all-time leading scorer and the 2015 MLS MVP, never totally nailed down a regular role for Juve before joining the Reds either. It didn’t make him less of a star here.

No position for Pozuelo in Bob Bradley’s 4-3-3

In terms of roster fit, Pozuelo being expendable makes sense as well. Pozuelo thrives as a No. 10 and doesn’t really work as a No. 8 in a 4-3-3, or as a play-making winger. Toronto head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley prefers a 4-3-3 formation. Insigne is best suited to play left wing in that system too.

A midfield trio of Michael Bradley-Jonathan Osorio-Pozuelo would be way too easy to play through. Now with Pozuelo gone, homegrown Ralph Priso will likely slot into the XI, giving more ground covering and defensive bite next to Bradley and Osorio.

Italian revolution

Insigne came first, having captained Napoli… and then former Genoa captain Domenico Criscito in defense… and soon Bernadeschi.

Toronto were also reportedly interested in Italian international and longtime Torino striker Andrea Belotti this winter, too. Giovinco was training with his old side in preseason as well. What could have been!

Salcedo next?

The Pozeulo trade comes on the back of reports that Toronto are trying to offload Mexican center back Carlos Salcedo… who was acquired in January from Liga MX’s Tigres UANL in a swap of flop Yeferson Soteldo, their former Venezuelan international winger.

Salcedo is a DP and cannot be bought down. He has not lived up to expectations – at all – and might be on the move already, if they can find a taker.

If Toronto can find a move for Salcedo, they’d open another DP spot. Are there any more Italian internationals out of contract?

Speaking of: More DP trades/movement around MLS?

Pozuelo isn’t the first DP traded, but it’s still kind of a trailblazing type of move.

The DPs traded in recent history weren’t quite the same caliber as Pozuelo, who was acquired for $11 million from Genk in Belgium back in 2019. That’s a top-10 inbound transfer fee in league history. He won MVP two years ago. Normally when a player like this moves, it’s to a team abroad. Not for $150k GAM elsewhere in MLS.

More top-end player movement has been coming. Just this past winter, Albert Rusnak left Real Salt Lake as a DP in free agency for Seattle Sounders FC. Plus, Sebastian Blanco almost left the Portland Timbers in free agency before re-signing. These moves are rare, not unheard of.

They wanted an elite chance creator

… And Alejandro Pozuelo is just that.

For all of the reasons Toronto were looking to move on, he makes a lot more sense in Miami as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Miami have put together a lot of nice pieces in their rebuild thus far. Pozuelo is a wonderful fit.

Still only 30 years old, Pozuelo has 4g/5a in 16 appearances this season. He is 18 months removed from an MVP-winning season in which he had 9g/10 across 23 apps during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign, and is two years removed from his debut 12g/12a year.

Importantly, the move signals Miami’s continued shift away from ‘just collecting talent and hoping it works’ into ‘collecting talent that fits cohesively.’

Pozuelo in front of Brazilian midfielders Gregore and Jean Mota makes a ton of sense, with Leonardo Campana up top and some combination of wingers creating width/verticality. These points should be simple but it’s a drastic shift from the 2020 expansion club’s roster-building ethos prior to Chris Henderson taking over as chief soccer officer and sporting director.

Entering the summer window, Miami also had an open DP spot to facilitate this move. Next will be deciding on a new contract for Pozuelo.

Bigger moves coming in the winter for Miami?

Gonzalo Higuain has a club option for the 2023 season. The striker has been relegated to mostly a sub/rotation role with Campana’s emergence, as the Ecuador international has thrived during his loan (with purchase option) from Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers. If (when) they decline the Argentine’s option, Miami will open a DP spot.

Rodolfo Pizarro technically has the other, despite the fact he’s not at the club, on loan at Liga MX’s Monterrey. If (when) they find a permanent solution for the Mexican international midfielder this winter, that opens another DP spot.

That would leave Pozuelo as the only DP and his current contract expires this winter. We'll see if they negotiate a new deal, but regardless, Miami should already have two DP spots to maneuver with. That, potentially, gives Henderson tons of runway to further mold the squad in his vision.

… Is this a playoff team now?

Pozuelo fills Miami’s biggest need.

Until, like, seven months ago he was viewed as one of the very best players in the league. His reputation has taken a hit recently, but this move has some big potential.

Miami are still an incomplete team. Their rebuild needs more time, and they’re still dealing with sanctions through 2023 stemming from the league’s investigation into signing since-bought-out DP midfielder Blaise Matuidi from Juventus in August 2020. But, man, this forward progress has happened so much faster than anyone could have realistically anticipated. The fact we’re even talking about them potentially making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs would have been wild in preseason. Now, they’re ninth in the Eastern Conference standings entering Week 19.

The playoff race is wide open. Why not the Herons?