MARIETTA, Ga. – The story of the Argentine No. 10 is one that’s been told and re-told as playmakers from the country continue to make their stamp on Major League Soccer. Just as important for one of the league’s best teams, though, has been the story of the Argentine center back.
While his offensively-minded Atlanta United teammates have been grabbing the plaudits and awards throughout the season, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has proved himself to be one of the key figures on Atlanta’s backline in their run to 2018 MLS Cup, especially as the playoffs have reached the final stages.
His strong play in the postseason has coincided with a change in formation that, had it come earlier, could have potentially put him further in the mix for year-end honors, which are voted on at the conclusion of the regular season. Instead, Atlanta stumbled to the finish line, conceding eight goals in the final four games, including losses to the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC that cost them the Supporters’ Shield. Gonzalez Pirez would go on to finish fourth in Defender of the Year voting, a shade behind backline partner Michael Parkhurst, though a ways behind Seattle's Chad Marshall and winner Aaron Long of the Red Bulls.
“I would have loved to win it because it’s an important honor for a player who works hard,” Gonzalez Pirez told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday of his near miss for end-of-the-year honors. “Aaron Long deserved it well he had a great season. I would’ve loved to be in Best XI. It would have been a great joy for all the work you do all year.”
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Gonzalez Pirez’s defensive pedigree has come at least in part thanks to his extensive experience in Argentina’s youth national teams. He’s represented La Albiceleste at the 2009 Under-17 World Cup and 2011 U-20 World Cup, playing alongside the likes of current senior Argentine internationals Erik Lamela and Nicolas Tagliafico.
However, a senior international call-up remains elusive for the 26-year-old center back, even as he’s developed into one of the top defensive players in MLS. With Argentina boasting one of the world’s deepest, most talented national teams a first senior cap may seem far off, but Gonzalez Pirez remains hopeful.
“You dream about this all the time. Each time that the [Argentina] coach publishes a new list of call-ups you look at in the hope even though you know it’s not going to happen,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “But you work for this. I have that as a dream to fulfill. … It’s a goal I have. And it’s something I work day to day but it depends on the coach whether I’m considered to train with them.”
And could Gonzalez Pirez get that call he dreams of while starring for Atlanta United? Some Argentines might dismiss that possibility, but Gonzalez Pirez doesn't necessarily agree.
“I can’t answer that. This league doesn’t have anything to envy any other league.” he said “…the level here is better than many leagues. The best teams here can go toe-to-toe with teams from other continents and other leagues. They need to break that barrier with players from here who deserve to be on that level.”
Furthermore, perceptions can always change, and Gonzalez Pirez, a product of one of Argentina’s biggest clubs in River Plate, believes that can be the case as more of his compatriots continue to journey north to play in MLS.
“I think you see, at least in Argentina, that the perception of the league has changed a lot. I believe the league is taking a greater importance over there, in fact they broadcast almost all the matches, at least ours. And they also broadcast games of other teams,” he told reporters after Atlanta trained on Thursday morning. “The players I talk to say they would be interested in playing [in the league], that it’s a beautiful league, so it’s growing because they’re doing things well and I hope it continues to grow.”