LGP out, Meza in: Analyzing Atlanta United's center back change for 2020

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Fernando Meza - Atlanta United - split image

After weeks of rumors and whispers over whether the deal was done, Atlanta United made it official on Friday: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been sold to Liga MX’s Club Tijuana.

Following a three-season run in MLS that included a 2018 MLS Cup trophy, a 2019 U.S. Open Cup championship and a 2019 Campeones Cup title, the defender will now be plying his trade south of the border.

In return, Fernando Meza was sent to last year’s Eastern Conference finalists. The fellow Argentine defender – who was registered with Club Tijuana in 2020 before being immediately traded to Atlanta – recently made a name for himself in a Necaxa side that reached the semifinal round of last season’s Liga MX playoffs.

Looking ahead to the upcoming MLS season, what kind of player are Atlanta receiving?

Getting to know Fernando Meza

“Fernando is an athletic, ball-playing center back who immediately strengthens our defense,” said Atlanta VP Carlos Bocanegra about the latest signing. “He brings more than a decade of top-flight experience in Argentina, Chile and Mexico and will be a veteran presence for our backline.”

Bocanegra essentially hits the target when describing Meza.

With Necaxa, Meza was an experienced figure and an important source of distribution who helped link the backline with the midfield. According to stats from SofaScore, the central defender connected a total of 729 passes in his last Liga MX season, second only to Claudio Baeza in Necaxa’s squad. Despite the fact that he isn’t as aggressive or physical as Gonzalez Pirez, Meza’s technical style will help ATLUTD continue to build out of the back.

His aforementioned athleticism was also showcased in 2019 with his balanced ability to track down attackers, intercept balls and tackle opposition. If needed in other positions, he can play as a right back or as a defensive midfielder as well.

Although he isn’t nearly as passionate or emotional on the field as Gonzalez Pirez, Meza might still show up in the referees’ book just as often. In the 2019 Apertura season, Meza averaged a foul every 55.5 minutes and a yellow card every 277. In the 2019 MLS season with Atlanta, Gonzalez Pirez averaged a foul every 55 minutes and a yellow card every 245.5.

Big shoes for Meza to fill

It’s still completely up in the air if Meza will be able to become the same figure that Gonzalez Pirez was for Atlanta. After losing one of their leaders from on and off the pitch, the Five Stripes will be keeping their fingers crossed that Meza can help guide some of the team’s younger defenders.

Another question is whether he’ll have a similar influence when it comes to the distribution of the ball. With Necaxa, Meza wasn’t providing the same kind of eye-catching long passes or through balls that Gonzalez Pirez was able to occasionally serve. Instead, Meza tended to focus on more conservative and shorter passes within his own half of the field. As opposed to the boldness of Gonzalez Pirez, Meza likes to avoid risky decisions – which can sometimes lead to quiet matches.

It’s difficult to compare performances from one league to another, but in general, it appears as though Gonzalez Pirez has had more of an impact with Atlanta in the last few seasons than Meza had with Necaxa. LGP was outstanding as one of the top defenders in MLS during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and even though he experienced a drop in form last year, some of that can be attributed to adapting to new head coach Frank de Boer.

Meza has been a solid figure in recent Liga MX seasons, but never truly entered the conversation regarding the best defenders in the league. Whether it’s due to his style of play, his place in a smaller Mexican club or the long list of dominant central defensive options in Liga MX, Meza was often an under-the-radar name.

What it means for Robinson and ATL’s defense

LGP out, Meza in: Analyzing Atlanta United's center back change for 2020 -

Miles Robinson and Brad Guzan | USA Today Sports Images

All that said, after playing for more than a decade in three different Latin American countries, someone like the 29-year-old Meza (who will turn 30 in March) is crucial for a backline that will likely feature 22-year-old Miles Robinson as his central defensive partner. While Robinson will have to step up and be more of a physical presence, Meza should be able to take control of much of the passing going forward to the midfield.

Meza is in a decent run of form from his latest Apertura season with Necaxa, and keeping in mind that Gonzalez Pirez wasn’t as consistent in 2019, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Atlanta benefits from incorporating a fresh face with more momentum.

Meza’s Liga MX background is also a noteworthy boost for their 2020 Concacaf Champions League hopes. After Meza challenged and frustrated some of the top Liga MX names in recent months, Robinson and other Atlanta defenders should feel confident in the upcoming tournament, where they may face intimidating teams like Cruz Azul, Club America, Leon or Tigres.

Freelance writer Cesar Hernandez is a specialist in all things Mexican soccer. He has covered Liga MX, the Mexican national team and Mexicans abroad for ESPN FC, The Athletic, The Guardian, FourFourTwo, VICE Sports and several other publications. Along with writing and previous radio appearances on the BBC, talkSPORT and SiriusXM FC, Cesar is also a member of the Mexican Soccer Show podcast.