Gonzalez's feature role makes him key cog in Ticos' defense
The media tunnel at PPL Park was crowded with both Spanish- and English-speaking reporters, waiting to speak to members of both Costa Rica and Ireland after the two National Teams played a friendly at the home of the Philadelphia Union. Irish striker Robbie Keane was a popular target, as were attackers Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell for Costa Rica. Also in demand was Crew defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, starting centerback and the man currently donning the number three shirt for Los Ticos.
I expected much of the attention on Gonzalez to be centered around the red card he received just before halftime. I wasn't sure how the red card would affect the tone of other reporters' questions, or if anything would be asked other than inquiries about that specific play.
When Pipo emerged from the tunnel, I was waiting off to the side with a camera and a microphone, separate from the mixed zone and eager to ask him about his leadership role, his National Team's tactics along the backline and how they differ from Columbus'. Calling out his name, Gonzalez noticed my Crew attire and approached with a smile. He conducted a candid, thoughtful interview with me, and then a second with the crowd in the mixed zone, who no doubt were most interested in the incident with Kevin Doyle and the resulting red card.
After retelling a story that Gonzalez surely wants to erase from memory before attempting to get his country past the group stage for just the second time ever, he came back in my direction on his way to the exit. Smiling again, and knowing I didn't speak his native language, he approached and said something in his best English:
"Say hi to everyone in Columbus for me."
With that, he shook my hand and boarded the team bus. A simple gesture, sure, but one that stuck with me as I pondered Gonzalez' leadership role and his importance for the Ticos' defense. While much of the attention was on a negative play, it was hard not to be impressed how professional the Crew centerback was in answering questions. His mood and responses indicated that the frustration had already passed. Pipo is not the eldest defender on this club's roster, nor is he the most-capped, but his key role as a starting central defender is unquestioned, and he understands how important he is in helping Costa Rica win games.
"I feel like I have the confidence from the technical staff, and I’m proud of that," he said. "I’m happy with it and I want to maintain it. I’m proud to wear the colors of my country in the World Cup."
Gonzalez is perhaps Costa Rica's most important defender as the central presence in a dynamic back five that shifts to four or sometimes three, based on the flow of play. There is high demand on Pipo in both positioning and responsibility.
"Right now, with the National Team, we are playing a line of five. It’s so that we are in good [position] when the other team is attacking. When we are attacking, we form a line of four, and the two wingers go to the top."
"It’s a lot like the Columbus Crew. It’s something that [Costa Rica] also does, we are well-standing in the back, and when we have to attack, we go all in."
Playing a dynamic system like that can be challenging, especially against a FIFA World Cup group that contains the likes of Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, Mario Balotelli, Ciro Immobile and many others.
"The team is really organized. We know when we have to defend and when to attack. In the World Cup, we only want to get good results and see what happens."
Beyond being a leader on the pitch, Gonzalez also has the unique role of being a mentor figure for Crew teammate Waylon Francis, who at 23 was the youngest defender called into the Ticos squad by Jorge Luis Pinto.
"Every day, I talk to Waylon," said Gonzalez. "I am just telling him to work hard, and he is. It’s just a matter of time before the coach gives him the opportunity to play."
Gonzalez has been away from the Crew for several weeks, and even though his focus is naturally on Brazil, he said that he finds time to keep up with the Black & Gold.
"My thinking is on the World Cup, and with every game I play, my thinking is only on that game. However, I am always talking to my teammates with the Crew. I’m telling them to keep working hard. We’re in the midseason, we have to keep playing well and hopefully we make the playoffs."
Costa Rica opens the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Saturday against Uruguay, and Gonzalez said that he was happy the red card occurred during a friendly and not during that match, or any in Brazil. A second chance of sorts, the Columbus centerback will assuredly learn from it and be all the better off at the World Cup. In a group as talented as Costa Rica's, there is sure to be adversity along the way, but based on his post-match response to adversity in Philadelphia, he figures to be well-equipped to handle it.
The Ticos will be counting on him.