It was never supposed to start this way for Gonzalo Veron. It wasn’t supposed to start this way for the New York Red Bulls, either.
Just months after hoisting their second Supporters’ Shield in three years, New York stumbled out of the gate. Veron, a speedy Argentine who’d garnered a multi-million dollar transfer fee in August – had barely seen the pitch.
Red Bulls fans were worried. What, exactly, was going on with their team? And why had Veron struggled to find his place on it?
It’s late February, and Gonzalo Veron seems full of confidence. He strides into the lobby of a posh hotel in Clearwater, Florida, and pulls up a chair. He’s a ball of energy, practically buzzing – and why not?
In a handful of preseason games, Veron has scored a bushel of goals. He’s formed a dynamic partnership with Bradley Wright-Phillips – the two have taken turns playing provider and finisher all month – and seems a lock to make the XI on opening day.
Veron raves about his teammates and the club’s management. He calls Wright-Phillips a “truly complete” forward and Jesse Marsch gets his unwavering support: “I give him a 10 out of 10 as a person. He’s a great worker, always working towards the success of the team.”
Most of all, Veron seems excited to have a full preseason to work with. After struggling to adapt in 2015, he’s healthy and seems eager to carve out his spot on the squad.
“This,” says Veron, “is the year of the Red Bulls.”
But there’s something simmering beneath Veron’s air of confidence. Just weeks earlier, he’d lost his father in a tragic accident, a loss which affected him deeply. And there are also lingering injury concerns that manifest themselves only days after our chat when the former San Lorenzo striker suffers a hamstring strain in his final preseason match.
Stuck in the training room, that energy and the self-assurance fades away.
Weeks pass. Veron sits idly by while the Red Bulls struggle to find their footing. In more than one game, it’s easy to imagine how useful his direct, driving style could be off the bench or spelling Lloyd Sam or Mike Grella in the starting lineup. He can do nothing.
In a mid-March encounter with the Dynamo, the 26-year-old makes his return. He’s not yet fully fit, and pulls the same hamstring just 32 minutes into the match.
Finally, in a match against Orlando City in early May, Veron gets some significant minutes, used out wide as a second-half substitute. He looks understandably nervy. He finds himself unfortunately positioned on the goal line and mistakenly turns away a teammate’s shot on goal, perhaps costing his side a win.
But the hallmarks of Veron’s game – the blinding speed and movement that New York saw in him when they shelled out a reported $2.2 million for his services in 2015 – were there. And against D.C. United a week later, a match which Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty calls “an embarrassment,” Veron gets a starting nod, one of the lone bright spots in a largely forgettable match.
“You go a little crazy [when you’re injured,] it’s true,” Veron says in Spanish during an MLSsoccer.com interview after a training session last week. “You set your sights on a quick return, and that doesn’t happen – and it takes a toll. You’ve got to work mentally to recover in the best way possible and to be ready.
“There are lots of factors that you can’t do anything about. There’s also what happened with my father, who died only recently, and that gets in your head as well. They’re things that you have to deal with.”
His father’s death came as a total shock. He’d been gravely ill when Veron had returned to Argentine in the offseason to visit, but made a full recovery. It was only after Veron returned to the US for preseason that tragedy struck, a truck accident suddenly taking his father’s life.
It was not the first challenge Veron had faced since joining the Red Bulls.
Veron, the youngest DP in club history, struggled to fit in both on and off the pitch during his first half-year. Having joined a team already barreling towards the top spot in the league, he was used as an impact sub, perhaps not what he’d imagined. Having never played for a club outside his native Buenos Aires, he spoke no English and found himself adapting to a new pace of life.
It’s a challenge that’s intensified this year: Veron is the only native Spanish-speaker on the team, and his inability to stay on the field affected him off it.
“I think sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand a soccer player,” he says. “For a soccer player, everything happens through soccer. If everything’s going well with your soccer life, everything is going well in life. It’s irrelevant where you are – you could be in the middle of the desert but if you’re doing well professionally, chances are things will be going well off the pitch as well.
“So when things start going bad on the field, you begin to suffer outside the pitch as well. For me, my struggles last year made it more difficult to adapt culturally, to learn the language. But like I said, you make choices in life – I love the choice I made. My goal from here is to learn English as quickly as possible, to allow me to communicate better with my teammates, which is obviously very important.”
Hovering near the bottom of the conference but within striking distance of the playoff field, the Red Bulls could certainly use the production that seemed imminent when he and Wright-Phillips poured in the goals during the preseason.
But are there enough minutes to go around?
Yes, the Red Bulls started slowly, but they seem to be slowly finding their legs offensively. Grella, a New York native, has impressed all year, rapidly becoming a fan favorite. Sam is finally beginning to show the form that endeared him to so many in 2015, though Veron did supplant him against D.C. Wright-Phillips, who will hold a share of the MLS single-season goal record until someone scores 28, remains a lock.
Veron impressed in the No. 10 role, but seems unlikely to wrestle that position away from Sacha Kljestan. Though he has said he prefers a central role, he made it clear that he’s ready to contribute wherever he’s needed.
“The team is great right now. we’ve gotten off to a rough start, but we’ve been improving steadily,” he says. “It’s a viable option to have me up top because of my movement, my speed and Bradley’s speed and because of the good dynamic the team has in midfield.
“But I can pay in midfield as well. I think they’re both good options. For me, I’d love to play at forward, but that’s a decision for the coaching staff. There’s a saying in soccer, ‘You don’t ask the coach why he’s putting you in, so you also shouldn’t ask him when he’s taking you out.’ In my case, I lost my spot because of injury, so now it’s my duty to fight to get that spot back again.”
Though his path in New York has often been bumpy, it’s clear that the Argentine has no doubt in his ability. With a Wednesday match against the Chicago Fire upcoming (7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) and a massive Heineken Rivalry Week tilt against New York City FC looming on Saturday at Yankee Stadium (3 pm ET, FOX), Veron seems sure to get his shot soon.
Where, when and whether he’ll fulfill all that potential remains to be seen.
“The team is in good shape right now, yes,” Veron says, “but I also know I have my own skills, my movement, my speed. I know that can be important to break teams down, to stretch defenders. I will do what I can when I’m called upon. I’m at ease about it.”