Entering play on Saturday, the Sounders FC needed goals in the worst way. Scoreless at home over the previous 270 minutes of MLS play and just 1-4-1 in their last six league games overall, they needed a spark to get back to the winning ways that helped make their inaugural year in 2009 so successful.
In steps Leo Gonzalez.
Just five minutes into the match with the New England Revolution, Gonzalez got a ball into the box for Steve Zakuani, who lost control of the ball on a cutback move to the outside. Fortunately though, the ball spilled right to Gonzalez for a left-footed dagger of a shot inside the far post, bending the ball through the air like a heat-seeking missile bound for the back of the net.
“It was an unbelievable goal,” Zakuani said.
“It was a great finish and it got the crowd into it early,” said Sounders FC forward Pat Noonan. “We didn’t look back after that.”
With the Sounders in a high-pressure offensive attack, though, Gonzalez was actually asked to focus himself on the defensive side of the ball, where he would be charged with slowing midfielder Sainey Nyassi and outside back Kevin Alston, who frequently works his way into the offense.
“Before the game we told him he’s got a tough guy with speed in Nyassi, make sure you defend him, and if you can get forward once in awhile great, but don't worry about that. Obviously he proved me wrong, five minutes and getting forward and hammering the shot in,” laughed Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid.
Gonzalez knew of his instructions to defer to the defensive side of his responsibilities, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to press forward and it paid off with his first MLS goal after joining the Sounders FC in July of last season.
“Indeed, it was the guidance from the management staff, but the opportunity showed up,” Gonzalez said after the 3-0 win. “I managed to go to offense and thank God I managed to score. "It was a matter of getting the confidence to kick and a little bit of luck as well. It was a beautiful goal and gave us the confidence for the remainder of the game.”
Key though was the confidence of Gonzalez, who went on to also add his first assist in MLS on a later goal by Fredy Montero. Primarily though, was his shutdown ability on Nyassi.
Aided by his consistent work in training against the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Sanna Nyassi and Miguel Montano, among others, Gonzalez has shown an adeptness for lifting his game against players like Sainey Nyassi and New York’s Dane Richards, who are both known for their incredible speed and quickness.
“He deals with quick players pretty well, and he would steal balls and that would put him into the offensive part of the field - that allowed him to get forward because he defended really well,” Schmid said.
“He’s actually surprising against fast players like that,” Zakuani said. “He’s good a toeing balls away and nicking balls. And we’re getting better playing together.”
Seeing Gonzalez on his game on the defensive left side allowed Tyrone Marshall and Jeff Parke to focus all of his energies on thwarting the efforts of New England’s strikers while Patrick Ianni kept the ever-dangerous Shalrie Joseph out of the attack.
“He was concentrating. He was playing his normal game going forward, but he had his hands full with Nyassi. That was his main task and he came through,” Marshall said. “It was good for him and his game picked up after that.”
The result was the fourth clean sheet of the season for Kasey Keller and a 3-0 victory. And maybe even the start of a new trend for the Sounders FC.