TORONTO — Pain-free for the first time this season, Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo reminded Toronto FC fans on Saturday why he was MLS MVP in 2020.
Pozuelo drew a penalty and then converted the 71st-minute spot kick to lift Toronto into a 2-2 tie with the Chicago Fire. Seven minutes later he scored a highlight-reel goal to give TFC a much-needed 3-2 victory.
With the Chicago defence seemingly rooted to the spot, Pozuelo took a feed from Jayden Nelson and moved to the edge of the penalty box before curling a shot top corner that bounced off the crossbar into the goal for his fourth of the season.
It was a class finish to a wild end-to-end game that saw Chicago outshoot Toronto 32-5. But only eight of those Chicago shots were on target — compared to four for Toronto — explaining perhaps why the Fire came into the contest with the league's worst offence, averaging just 0.85 goals a game.
Chicago launched 33 crosses during the game, compared to three for Toronto.
Saturday's win likely gave Toronto coach Bob Bradley as much bad as good to review. But he liked his young team's response.
"I like the resilience … It's still important that the group understand that at a moment where not every part of the football is what it should be, there's still ways to compete."
Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri, at US$8.153 million the league's highest-paid player, pulled the strings in attack for the Fire.
The former Liverpool and Bayern Munich man created seven of Chicago's 23 chances, according to the official statistics. Toronto created just three chances.
Pozuelo had missed the last three games with a lower body injury but returned with a bang in an entertaining contest before 25,906 at BMO Field. The Spaniard said after the match that he has been dealing with ankle and hamstring issues, taking an injection to help with his hamstring.
"I played almost all the season with pain." he said. "I said to the physio today … I feel good today."
"I'm very happy for this and also happy to help the team," he added. "It's an important win."
Bradley said Pozuelo, who was dogged by injury last season, has only been able to train sporadically in recent weeks, so still has a way to go in finding his top form.
"What we saw was that when he has the ball at his feet at times, he can still make a great pass, score a great goal," he said.
But Bradley has made it clear he wants the Spaniard, who is in the final year of his contract, to be "more involved all the time."
The result was more than welcome. Toronto (4-7-3) had gone 0-5-1 in its previous six league outings although it posted a 2-1 road win over HFX Wanderers in Canadian Championship quarterfinal play Tuesday. Its last league victory was April 16, a 2-1 decision over the visiting Philadelphia Union.
Deandre Kerr scored early for Toronto before Carlos Teran answered for Chicago seven minutes into the second half. Kacper Przybylko's 66th-minute goal gave Chicago a 2-1 lead before referee Guido Gonzales Jr. handed Toronto a lifeline, pointing to the penalty spot after video review.
Chicago defender Miguel Navarro had bodied Pozuelo to the ground on the edge of the box and the review showed Pozuelo had a foot in the area.
Chicago coach Ezra Hendrickson called the penalty "very, very questionable."
Chicago (2-7-5) is now winless in 10 (0-7-3), enduring its third double-digit winless run in a single season (both previous slides came in 2011 with 11 straight from April-June and 10 straight from June-August).
TFC is unbeaten in 14 matches (11-0-3) against the Fire dating back to September 2015. It marks the longest unbeaten run against a single opponent in Toronto’s MLS history, equalling the league regular-season record (a mark achieved four times).
Things looked bleak for Toronto in the 12th minute when midfielder Jonathan Osorio was substituted, slowly making his way to the bench around the outside of pitch. But as he reached the south goal, there was something to celebrate as Kerr fired a shot through a defender's legs and past 18-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina for a 1-0 lead in the 13th minute.
Luca Petrasso and Jesus Jimenez set up the play with Jimenez drawing the attention of the defence before slotting the ball over to the 19-year-old Kerr for his second of the season.
Toronto hasn't held MLS opposition scoreless in a club-record 22 straight matches. Its last shutout was a 0-0 draw at Colorado on Sept. 25, 2021.
The initial word on Osorio was "lower body discomfort." The 29-year-old midfielder, who was making his first start since April 30 due to a lower body injury, is slated to join Canada in Vancouver next week for CONCACAF Nations League games against Curacao and Honduras.
Lukas MacNaughton came on in place of Toronto defender Shane O'Neill to open the second half. O'Neill was complaining of dizziness after taking a ball to the head.
Chicago tied it up in the second half. Shaqiri looped a cross back into the box and the six-foot-two Teran outjumped the six-foot Carlos Salcedo to head the ball home.
A Chicago goal in the 55th minute was waved off after video review due to offside.
The visitors kept up the pressure as the second half wore on. And Chicago went ahead after Shaqiri sent in a cross that Gaston Gimenez headed back to Przybylko to knock home.
Westberg made his first MLS start in the Toronto goal this season, ending Alex Bono's run of 13 league starts in 2022. Westberg, who started Tuesday's game in Halifax, showed off his pinpoint distribution throughout Saturday's game.
Bradley had hinted at keeping Westberg in goal, saying in the buildup to the game he had always planned on giving the other 'keeper a run at some point. He made five changes to the Halifax lineup, with designated players Pozuelo and Salcedo returning to the starting 11.
Toronto wore customized "Primeblue" uniforms made out of recycled materials as part of a leaguewide initiative to raise awareness around plastic waste on land and in water.
Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Chris Mavinga and Noble Okello remained out for Toronto with lower body injuries. Kadin Chung, who had been listed as questionable, was on the bench.
The teams now head into the international break. TFC has a game looming, however, with the rescheduled 2020 Canadian Championship final against Forge FC on June 4 in Hamilton.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press