Leo Gonzalez struggled with a groin injury for much of the 2011 season.
There’s no way he could have known it then, but it may end up meaning great things for the 31-year-old left back in the 2012 season.
Using workouts designed by Sounders FC fitness coach Dave Tenney, Gonzalez rehabbed his going injury in his native Costa Rica throughout the offseason. In doing so, he also came to training camp fitter and more prepared for the early start to the season when the Sounders kick off in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Santos Laguna on Wednesday.
“I feel more comfortable and more fit,” he said, conducting much of his interview in English. “I’ve been working the whole off-season in Costa Rica. My body and my fitness are great.”
The results have been a stronger, quicker player in the preseason, which bodes well for the Sounders as they build toward their biggest match in club history starting March 7 at CenturyLink Field and continuing March 14 in Torreon, Mexico.
Although the injuries meant he started just 12 regular season matches for the Sounders, he played a key role in their run to their third straight US Open Cup title and in reaching the CCL quarterfinal.
He and Osvaldo Alonso were the only Sounders to play all 360 minutes in Seattle’s four US Open Cup matches in 2011 and he added five starts in the Champions League, playing 479 minutes in the tournament.
In addition to nine seasons in the Costa Rican first division, Gonzalez also played 61 times for the Costa Rican National Team, including three appearances in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
“Leo’s an experienced guy. We don’t have a lot of guys on our team who have played in a World Cup or have played 60 or more times for their country,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “He adds a lot of that experience to the team.”
His experience playing against the style employed by the Mexican and Central American teams Seattle has faced in the Champions League helps him earn playing time in those matches, but in his three years in MLS he has also grown increasingly comfortable playing against the style of play in MLS.
He is equally effective when matched against the speedsters like New York’s Dane Richards as he is against the likes of David Beckham and can easily transition from a match against those players to a team from Mexico or Costa Rica.
“I think I’m very accustomed to the style of play here in the United States. I’ve been here four years and I’m used to it,” Gonzalez said. “In Costa Rica, the style is also more technical, but I’m used to how we play in the United States and I do fine with it.”
Part of the reason for that success is his undying desire to compete. He finds ways to make competitions out of different elements of training, always ready to find a way to mix in a little soccer tennis before or after a session.
“He’s always looking to find an edge. Having him out there, you always feel good about it because he’s very competitive,” Schmid said. “He doesn’t like to lose and you know he’s going to compete until the end of the day for you.”
In 2012, that means competing in as many as five competitions between the Champions Leagues of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, the US Open Cup, MLS regular season play and the MLS Cup playoffs.
So while his hard work in the off-season has him ready for the early-season Champions League schedule, he also has longer-term goals that will have that work carrying over throughout the year.
“My objective is to take the MLS Cup and be in the starting 11, so I need to work hard,” he said.
Tickets are still available for the first leg of the quarterfinal meeting with Santos Laguna. Seattle opens the MLS calendar March 17 at CenturyLink Field against Toronto FC.