The Odd Couple

They grew up worlds apart and have little in common, but Leo Gonzalez and Sanna Nyassi have become best of friends for the Sounders FC.

Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison have got nothing on Sanna Nyassi and Leo Gonzalez.

When it comes to odd couples, the Sounders FC pair takes the cake.

When Gonzalez first joined the club in July of 2009, most players had already established relationships with other teammates.  When the team went on the road, routines and roommates were already established.

The Costa Rican defender, though, found himself frequently going head-to-head with Nyassi on the field and paired with the Gambian midfielder as roommates on the road.

Gonzalez is 29-years-old, a veteran of ten professional seasons and is married with a young son.  Nyassi is a 21-year-old up-and-comer living on his own.

Gonzalez speaks Spanish and is learning English, but would hardly call it a language he understands.  Nyassi speaks his native tongue in Gambia, along with English, but hardly knows any Spanish.

All those facts aside, the two have become fast friends and are nearly inseparable on and off the field.

“We have similar personalities, but we really started to be friends when we shared a room.  We had a lot of opportunities to talk – the little bit of Spanish that he understood and the English that I understood – but we were able to communicate pretty well.  We had a lot of great conversations and we’ve gotten to be great friends,” Gonzalez said.

Added Nyassi, “It’s not the same language and not the same culture, but it just happened.  Sometimes it’s hard to communicate because he doesn’t understand English that much and I don’t understand Spanish, but we just blend the languages and use sign language.  It works pretty good.”

One thing that doesn’t need translation is the laughter the two share.  Both perennial jokesters, Nyassi is always catching Gonzalez with a quick prank.  On the road, Nyassi ensures that he is the first out of the hotel room, then will quickly hide down the hallway, only to spring out and surprise his unsuspecting roommate.

“He’s scared easily,” laughed Nyassi.  “He can be looking at you straight in the eyes, and if you make a sudden movement, he gets scared.  It’s fun being with him though.”

While the jokes and banter have turned the two into close friends off the field, they are fierce competitors against each other on the field.

It is not uncommon for Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid to pit the right wing Nyassi against the left back Gonzalez in a training session.  Over the last year-and-a-half, they have met toe-to-toe on likely hundreds of occasions.  That has built an intense battle between the two, but never to the point that it goes beyond a healthy competition.

“He helps my game,” Nyassi said.  “He’s a strong, tough defender and that helps me to make good decisions and it helps me get stronger, physically.”

That has helped Nyassi grow into a goal-scoring threat and a force on the right side.  In 2009, he posted just 305 minutes and didn’t register a goal or an assist.  In 2010, he came on strong as the season wore on, picking up two goals and three assists in 1,241 minutes.  Where he was a speedy player in 2009, he has now added a greater soccer sense and has become a much greater threat.

Likewise, Gonzalez has garnered a much greater ability to contain and keep pace with some of the speedy wingers in MLS, such as New York’s Dane Richards.

“Last year I trained against him a lot and in training I found that he is complicated to defend,” Gonzalez said of Nyassi.  “We’ve had to rough each other up a bit, but really, we have a friendship and that relationship makes those things ok.”

If there is one element of their friendship that has been logical, it has been that – head-to-head rivals in training are often great friends off the field.  The same applies to the opposite side of the field, where Steve Zakuani and James Riley are heated opponents on the field and comrades off it.

“I don’t want to lose to him and he doesn’t want to lose to me.  It’s just that battle and I think it definitely makes you better and off the field you appreciate what the other brings,” Zakuani said.  “Every week they’d go against each other and Leo would develop ways to stop Sanna – not all of them were legal.  From there, they just became friends and it just shows you how a team can bond – that two guys that can’t talk the same language can be best friends.”

No matter how peculiar the pairing.

The Sounders take on the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinal series beginning Sunday night at Qwest Field.  The return leg is Sunday, November 7 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.

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