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The Center Of Attention

Leo Gonzalez made his return trip to Costa Rica with the Sounders FC for the Champions League meeting with Saprissa.

SAN  JOSE, Costa Rica - Leo Gonzalez slept in his own bed.  He ate breakfast cooked by his mother - his favorite gallo pinto, too.

It may sound simple, but this small gesture by Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid has put a permanent smile on the face of the always jovial defender.

Who could blame him?

He’s home in beautiful Costa Rica with his family getting ready to play an important game for the Sounders FC against the countries most popular team - and a rival of Gonzalez with his longstanding club, CS Heriadano.

“I miss my family,” Gonzalez said.  “I am very happy to have the chance to be home and visit my family and friends.”

This is a rare opportunity for Gonzalez afforded him by the Sounders advancement into the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.  When Seattle topped Metapan in the preliminary round to advance to the group stage, Gonzalez couldn’t stop smiling, knowing that in short time he would bring his team to his home country to face Saprissa. 

For a player that has spent the last 14 months playing in a foreign land and learning a new language and culture, the shoe has quickly fallen on the other foot.  He is now telling teammates about the customs of Costa Rica and acting as a quasi-tour guide.  If his teammates need something in the hotel, they turn to Gonzalez and he makes it happen.

That also translates in scouting Saprissa, a team Gonzalez has long been familiar with, from the team to the players.

“It is a nice job for me.  I already know the country and the players we will play against,” Gonzalez said.  “I can convey that knowledge to my teammates to help us play better.”

When he left Costa Rica last July, he left behind his parents and brother and friends, many of whom have visited him in the hotel since the team arrived Sunday.  For all the nostalgia and happiness that has come with Gonzalez’s return home, it was not at all a difficult decision for him to leave his home country to play for the Sounders FC last year.

“All football players want to have the opportunity to play at a higher level,” he said.

Though he joined the club midseason and did not speak a word of English, he quickly adapted to the club and has this year played a vital role in a defense that has returned in recent weeks to the outstanding form of the 2009 season.

Now, they have a chance to show themselves against one of the top teams in the region in an important match in the Champions League.

“It is a good opportunity to lift up the play of the Sounders and for me to make myself a better player,” Gonzalez said.  “It will be fun to play against my old teammates.”

Gonzalez will undoubtedly have plenty of requests for tickets for tonight’s match with Saprissa.  However, that extra attention is no problem for Gonzalez.

“One of the most important things is to be with my family and eat the food that I grew up with,” he said.  “It’s difficult to find that in America.”

The game kicks off at 7 pm Pacific Time on Fox Soccer Channel and on the radio at 97.3 KIRO FM.  Saprissa is tied for second in the group with three points while the Sounders have not gained any points from their first two matches.