SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA - If you need an indication of the level of excitement that Leo Gonzalez has in returning to Costa Rica this week to face his former club, Herediano, just check the bags he brought with him for the short trip.
“You can tell by the size of the luggage that he takes he’s definitely bringing presents for somebody and playing against his old club is special for him, as well,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “He’s excited about this and it’s important for us to have him on this trip.”
Typically, players take a small bag of personal wares on the road to fill the time between training sessions, meetings and the match itself. For this trip, Gonzalez brought two full-size bags filled with gifts for family and friends that haven’t seen him in the nine months since he left Costa Rica for training camp with the Sounders FC this year, his third in MLS.
For a player that played his first nine seasons as a pro in his home country, it was a bit of an adjustment playing in the US with the Sounders FC the last three seasons. And while he still has a strong emotional tie to Herediano, the match on Wednesday will be business as usual.
“I’m happy to be back after nine months away. I’m motivated and here to get the job done,” Gonzalez said. “To come back, now I’m representing Seattle and we’re here to get the three points.”
It’s not Gonzalez’s first trip back to Costa Rica with the Sounders, but he’d be more than willing to forget his previous trip, when he was red-carded playing against rival Saprissa, leaving him to walk nearly the length of the field and exit the field below Saprissa’s raucous supporter section.
“It’s definitely not what I expected, getting a red card. I came out with a lot of energy and I’ll learn from that experience and work hard on Wednesday,” he said.
It’s not even Gonzalez’s first time playing against Herediano. In 2009, before he came to Seattle, he transferred to Municipal Liberia, where even in his brief time, he squared off with Herediano and won a championship with his new squad.
When he signed with the Sounders in July of 2009, he didn’t think he’d be playing against his longtime club, though he always knew it would be a possibility.
“I never really imagined that I’d have the opportunity to play against a team I played in,” he said. “For me, it’s all about Seattle and we’re here to get the three points, but it does provide extra motivation for me.”
Each time he comes back to Costa Rica, he is greeted by a group of reporters seeking to get some words from the defender who capped 61 times for the Costa Rican national team. Tuesday was no different when he arrived at Juan Santamaria International Airport. Cameras sought out Gonzalez as the media asked about returning and facing his old club. When he finished, he sheepishly piled onto the bus, hesitant to be too excited about the media attention.
“I knew there would be extra attention because it’s a team I played for,” he said, shyly, before grinning, “I think they just want to interview me because I speak Spanish.”
It’s an important match for Gonzalez and an important match for the Sounders as they look to build on their 2-0-0 start in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. The veteran left back will likely play an important role for Seattle in their quest to reach the quarterfinals. They just hope this time around, playing in Costa Rica will be a more memorable experience, for all the right reasons.
“We’re trying to make sure he stays on the field and plays more minutes,” laughed Schmid.
Kickoff is set for 7 pm Pacific on Fox Soccer. There will be no local broadcast of the match.