Center back is an unglamorous position. Its primary role is to stop goals from being scored. That’s no fun, goals are fun, goals are the point of soccer. Sure a clean sheet in a 1-0 match is worth the same 3 points as a thrilling 3-2 victory, but there’s a reason the defensive mastermind Jose Mourinho comes off like he has an inferiority complex when speaking about offensive genius Pep Guardiola.
Players at center back are soccer’s red headed step children. When the team wins, glory goes to the goal scorers. When the team loses, blame is put on the backline. It is perhaps telling that in Atlanta’s recent draw with Seattle, center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was a stand out and put in a man of the match worthy performance.
LGP is a rarity among MLS center backs. He has superlative ball skills and is often the first or second player to make a pass transitioning the team from defense to attack. Against 10 man Chicago, he had more passes than the entire Fire team. When Atlanta has possession he often moves forward to receive the ball so that the team can keep the it and reset on offense. Take a look at his pass map from the Seattle game to illustrate where he is on the pitch when he gets the ball:
Great game by González Pirez in #SEAvATL: Playmaking CB led #ATLUTD in touches (77) & passes (61). Also 2 tackles, 4 int, 4 clearances. #MLS pic.twitter.com/pzwF0eTgut— Jason Foster (@JogaBonitoUSA) April 1, 2017
That tweet mentions it but it’s worth reemphasizing that LGP played like a #10 on the backline against Seattle and led the team in touches and passes. Most of the passes that led to turnovers were further up the field showing his skill at making the right play to hold possession. But linking the midfield and defense isn’t all that he has in his soccer repertoire.
Gonzalez Pirez has a unique ability to produce exciting plays in the attack as well. For example, he occasionally does things like this:
LGP working a combination with Garza for a chance late against Chicago https://t.co/Y7qlpkeim4— Parker Cleveland (@phcleveland3) April 2, 2017
Or he charges forward and dances through three defenders 90 yards from his own goal, like this:
Atlanta United's center back pic.twitter.com/sKxe22B5UJ— Joe Patrick (@japatrick200) April 1, 2017
Gonzalez Pirez is also an excellent defender. The tweet above with his pass map notes that he had two tackles, four interceptions, and four clearances in the game. That ability to snuff out attacks is what makes him so invaluable as a part of the Atlanta backline. In fact, Gonzalez Pirez has been so effective that Atlanta is yet to allow a goal from the run of play with him in a game.
This is in contrast to most MLS center backs who are expected to win crosses knocked into the box, kick Giovinco when he is within three feet of their boots, clear the ball by launching it 50 yards from the net, and make the occasional last ditch tackle. On offense, their responsibilities are typically being tall on set pieces and hope to head home a goal. The lack of technical play from the majority of center backs helps explain why MLS is such a physical league.
This has changed some in recent years with teams like Seattle, Toronto, and Montreal diversifying the tactical menu in MLS. Fellow center back Michael Parkhurst was a focal point in the Columbus Crew defense that built their attack through possession by playing out of the back. Matt Miazga transferred to Chelsea after a standout season in 2015 when he helped the New York Red Bulls become one of the most effective possession based teams in the league.
Gonzalez Pirez has a similar skill set to 2015 MLS Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman. The Montreal Impact center back anchors the team’s backline while providing support on offense by moving the ball from defense to midfield and occasionally charging forward to lead an attack himself.
Ciman and LGP remain outliers in MLS with most teams in the league still building their attack by launching the ball long and hoping that a player up field can win possession. Managers resort to these tactics because they tend to be effective in MLS. The Colorado Rapids fell just two points short of the Supporter’s Shield playing that style.
Atlanta United came into the league promising to play an aggressive, pressing style focusing on offense and scoring goals. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been a key to implementing that style and has helped anchor a backline that has kept a clean sheet in half its games.
The Five Stripes have gotten all of that out of a player that is putting in Designated Player level performances while paying him with Targeted Allocation Money. His inclusion with the team illustrates the value that having a manager with the credibility of Tata Martino does to recruit players at the level Gonzalez Pirez plays at and shows the savviness of the front office in finding players to execute the coach’s style.