Despite the goalscoring prowess of Josef Martinez, the game-changing pace of Tito Villalba, and the dynamism of Miguel Almiron, perhaps no Atlanta United player is more important to the club than one of the understated South Americans—Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
What’s most impressive about the Argentine defender isn’t the way he’s performed on the field, it’s the way he’s hastily settled into American life—a big compliment for a player in the conversation for an MLS Best XI spot last season. Since arriving at the club, Gonzalez Pirez has made every effort to establish himself as a leader in the team, and part of that process involved learning more English. His teammates commend him for that ability, which helps keep the team cohesive on the pitch.
“His english is very good. So that’s helpful in being the go-between for some of the guys who aren’t necessarily great english speakers,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan told reporters before the team’s training session Friday. “I think he’s settled in really well here in Atlanta. He’s expecting a child any day now, and he’s made Atlanta his home. He’s taken it upon himself for when guys come in, especially from South America, he tries to help them out as much as he can off the field and making them feel comfortable. That kind of stuff leads them to feel more comfortable on the field.”
New summer signing Eric Remedi, for example, told an Argentine radio station this week that LGP has been one of the most helpful people at the club in helping him settle into a new country and way of life. Gonzalez Pirez invited him to his house and has generally made every effort to help his fellow countryman feel as comfortable as possible. But LGP isn’t tactical about it on order to help results, he says he simply sees it as a human courtesy.
“I like players to feel comfortable when the come [to the club],” Gonzalez Pirez said Friday. “I do what I’d want them to do for me. It’s nothing special, it’s just my personality to try to make them comfortable.”
It’s this kind of mentality that has led Tata Martino to rely on the Argentine to captain the side when Michael Parkhurst is unavailable. According to Martino, he’s as valuable to the team on the field as he is off of it.
“Leandro is one of those players like Parkhurst, Larentowicz and Guzan who has those fundamentals already in him,” Martino said through a translator. “He’s kind of that connection between the Hispanic players and the English-speaking players, so we really value him in that sense and the way he handles himself on the pitch.”
It’s easy to overlook LGP’s contributions because, as Guzan says, “he doesn’t make the headlines.” Some even dismiss the qualities he brings to the team because he makes an occasional error, which can often be deadly in Tata Martino’s system that places so much responsibility on the center backs. But despite not receiving the constant acclaim that showers down on some of his attacking counterparts, his teammates are well aware of his importance.
“I think there’s times he thinks he’s one of those attacking players when he starts dribbling out of the back!” joked Guzan. “But he and [Parkhurst] have a great relationship. What he brings to our back line in terms of his competitiveness, his [willingness to] put his body on the line—that’s important for a center back. As a defensive unit, we pride ourselves in our ability to go and let those guys go and do their thing in terms of scoring goals and exciting the fans.”
Taking all of this into account, it’s exciting for Atlanta United fans to see Gonzalez Pirez setting down roots in the city. He has purchased a home. He and his wife are expecting a child later this month. He’s clearly a player that enjoys his current setting and has taken to his new life in America with a long-term view. Sometimes, talented players that come to MLS from certain parts of the world can be viewed as mercenaries, but LGP is the antithesis of that notion. He’s Atlanta through and through.