Inter Miami is scheduled to take part in its first playoff game on Friday, and one of the major reasons for that is the pair of game-winning goals produced in two of the team’s final four matches of the regular season.
Those significant tallies were authored by the same midseason acquisition, but it was neither Gonzalo Higuain nor Blaise Matuidi.
Inter Miami is set to visit Nashville SC in a postseason match on Friday night, but the South Florida side would not have gotten this far had it not been for Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. The talented centerback not only produced decisive headers in narrow victories over Orlando City and FC Cincinnati in recent weeks, but has also provided a defensive upgrade and back-line leader on an expansion side that was 0-5 prior to his introduction to the fold in August.
“I think Leandro has been one of the team’s best signings,” said Inter Miami head coach Diego Alonso after the playoff-clinching win vs. FC Cincinnati in the regular season finale on Nov. 8. “Unfortunately we could not have him earlier. He arrived to play in Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament, but we were not able to count on him as the league did not allow us to play with him.
“Since the moment he could play, he has been one of the best additions that we have had. He has helped us a lot. He has had highs and lows, but he is a player of a different class. He has without a doubt helped us with our ascent this season.”
It has not just been on the defensive side, either. The 28-year-old Gonzalez Pirez — who signed with Inter Miami in July from Liga MX side Club Tijuana — has been the only player on the team to score off a corner in 2020. What’s more, he has provided a notable boost in terms of Inter Miami’s ability to play with the ball.
He is integral to the team’s build-out and his range of passes, including his cross-field switches, has helped create a respectable share of scoring chances and goals. The most notable example may be his helper on Inter Miami’s lone tally vs. the Montreal Impact on Oct. 17, but he also had a sublime secondary assist just three days earlier vs. his former team Atlanta United, though for some reason that was not officially credited by MLS.
Still, Gonzalez Pirez is more so tasked with providing a commanding presence at the back that can both intimidate opposing attackers and help instruct teammates.
“I am the defender with the most experience in the back line so (Alonso) asks me to try to be the leader a bit and to try to guide my teammates and support them a bit,” Gonzalez Pirez told SBI. “I try to do that and then he asks me to just be myself and to try to play how I always play.”
The Argentine has done such a solid job since his midseason arrival that a good case could probably be made for him being Inter Miami’s best player this season. Of course, goals and assists are more eye-catching than defensive play, something the veteran is not afraid to point out.
“The reality is that it’s about marketing and that the forwards are looked at more than the defender and goalkeepers,” said Gonzalez Pirez. “But we know what role we play and the situations that us defenders are in and we try to give the best we can.”
Gonzalez Pirez understood that last part so well that he initially made the decision to join his teammates for MLS is Back despite knowing he was ineligible to play. Other players in his shoes may have opted not to travel, especially when considering that he had a young and growing family to help adapt to a new life in a new city, but Gonzalez Pirez wanted to get integrated with his new squad immediately.
For him, doing that has proved instrumental in his seamless transition at Inter Miami.
“The key was that month,” said Gonzalez Pirez, who maintains he has European aspirations. “Rather than try to focus on the soccer, I tried to focus more on the personal side and the relationships you could make in the squad and in that way be able to get along mutually with my teammates. In soccer, good things arrive on their own when there is a good connection between the parts that play together.”
If there has been one criticism of the physical Gonzalez Pirez during his initial few months with Inter Miami, it is the same one that existed when he previously played for Atlanta United. His fiery personality and aggressive play have made him prone to plenty of yellow cards, racking up eight (tied for second-most in MLS) in 16 games this season.
Gonzalez Pirez insists he has a softer side to him different from what might normally be seen or depicted in games, one that is calmer and more family focused. In fact, he even has a quirky goal celebration dance that he has done after each of his recent tallies as a nod to his oldest daughter, though broadcast cameras have barely caught a glimpse of it.
That said, his trademark bruising defensive play and leadership qualities are what have helped Inter Miami get to this point and what he will continue to try to provide once the playoffs get going.
“The idea is to compete and give the best to my teammates and the club I represent now,” said Gonzalez Pirez. “I want to try and help us get as far as possible and hope that we can be competing (in MLS Cup) on Dec. 12 and playing for something rather than being on vacation.”