Fernando Meza, the team’s de-facto replacement for the departed Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, has big shoes to fill on and off the field. Jeff Larentowicz told reporters Tuesday just how difficult it will be to replace LGP, who started 95 regular-season games across the last three seasons.
“He was great, his passing, his confidence, his willingness to be a true defender — tackling, running,” Larentowicz told reporters Tuesday at the team’s training facility. “I don't think there were forwards who enjoyed going up against him. Simply, he was a p*k... in the best way possible. I think you want someone like that on your team.”
But if there was a player ready to fill LGP’s boots as he goes to Club Tijuana of Liga MX, Meza fits the profile perfectly. Talking to media for the first time in Atlanta Tuesday, he was chatty and friendly, even making a bet that he’d do an interview answering questions in English in six months.
Personality aside, Meza’s strengths fit the Five Stripes' playing style. Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra and manager Frank de Boer have both hailed the 29-year-old as being comfortable with the ball at his feet. Meza said he’s familiar with the role his compatriot played in helping Atlanta establish itself in MLS, first alongside the since-retired Michael Parkhurst and last season with US men's national team prospect Miles Robinson.
“I knew of Leandro from Argentine football,” said Meza. “He's a great center back and he was very loved by his teammates. He was someone who was very important here and left his mark on the club and deserved everything that he got here. But I'm going to come in my own way and try to prove to the coaching staff that I can perform and do everything I can to help the team on the field.”
Arguably as important as replacing LGP on the field will be replacing the leadership he brought to the locker room. While Meza’s age and experience already make him one of the most veteran players on the roster, he said respect will be earned, not given.
“I think that's something the group will determine,” said Meza. “Over time, we'll see what my role becomes, but that's something you have to win over. It doesn't just come right away. You have to win the respect and confidence of your teammates. I know that I'm joining a very good team, a very united team."