Atlanta United center back Leandro González Pirez knew of head coach Tata Martino but had never spoken to him personally until he received a phone call from his soon-to-be new manager in January.
Fast forward five months, and the 25-year-old Buenos Aires, Argentina, native has started each of Atlanta’s first 14 games and become a key piece of Martino’s backline.
Atlanta acquired González Pirez from Argentine side Estudiantes de La Plata on January 26, 2017. Until talks got serious, the defender said he didn’t know much about MLS, although he had heard that it was a physical league and progressing. Once he signed, he started to get informed quickly and began to prepare for the league.
Just a few months into his MLS career, the newcomer is quick to praise his new league.
“I think it’s an exceptional league. Like people told me, it’s growing a lot,” González Pirez said. “It’s exceeding many expectations of not only players who come to the league but also people who watch it from the outside. In the years to come I think it could easily be one of the best leagues in the world.”
González Pirez and his center back partner Michael Parkhurst have already been tasked with marking some of the best forwards in MLS including Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, David Villa and Fanendo Adi.
“The most difficult have been Villa and Giovinco without a doubt,” González Pirez said. “For what they produce, for their movement, their technical ability, for everything. They're very complete and intelligent players that complicate things a lot.”
The respect may be mutual. Villa sought out the Argentine in the visitor’s locker room at Yankee Stadium to swap jerseys after an intense matchup on May 7. The defender’s collection already includes each of the past two league MVPs as he and Giovinco traded jerseys after the match in Toronto earlier this season.
González Pirez is a physical and vocal member of the backline, but it’s his comfort and creativity on the ball for a defender that’s earning him recognition from fans and media alike. He came up through the youth system at River Plate, one of Argentina’s most historic clubs, and credits the club for developing his technical ability.
“I like playing with the ball. I try to take risks, maybe sometimes too much, to provide the forwards and midfielders good balls to be able to attack,” González Pirez said. “I like being in constant contact with the ball even though I’m a defender. At River Plate we always did a lot of work with the ball, and in possessing the ball, and I’m really grateful to River Plate for everything that they taught me.”
He made his first team debut at age 19 in 2011 and played for the club for three seasons. After quick loan spells with Gent in the Belgian Pro League and Arsena de Sarandi in Argentina, González Pirez played a season with Tigre and another with Estudiantes in the Argentine first division before coming to Atlanta.
González Pirez said life is different for soccer players in Argentina, as they’re constantly recognized and asked for photos or autographs. While it’s nice to be recognized and valued, he said, it makes daily living more complicated. Then there’s the added pressure on the field.
“I think people in Argentina are very passionate about soccer,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “If you make a good play then you’re the best and if you make a bad play then you’re the worst. You receive applause and insults. But I’m appreciative of my profession and for having played for great clubs in Argentina. I’d never change anything.”
The adjustment to MLS and life in the U.S. has been mostly smooth. He says he enjoys the security and the fact that he and his girlfriend are comfortable and able to live calmly here compared to Argentina.
“The biggest change is getting used to a new culture,” González Pirez said. “Sometimes it’s great because it’s relaxed, and other times it’s tough because you’re used to other things and a different rhythm. But I feel comfortable, it’s an incredible city and I get along great with my teammates.”
One of those other things that he’s getting used to: the way people drive in the U.S.
“Here, you arrive at a corner where there’s nobody, the car comes to a full stop, people look around for two seconds and then start up again,” he said. “Or when a school bus stops to drop off kids from school and absolutely stops both sides of the street. But they’re things you have to respect and get used to, and they’re good things because at least here everything works.”