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LA Galaxy 2020 player postmortem: Giancarlo Gonzalez

Veteran defender had another rough campaign, but was a kind of sabotage in play?

Vancouver Whitecaps v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Michael Janosz/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Giancarlo Gonzalez returned for his second season with the LA Galaxy in 2020, the Costa Rican looking to become a lockdown defender after a rocky 2019 campaign.

In the end, that quest eluded the player, but there was an interesting factor that may have contributed to his struggles.

First things first: Gonzalez had a terrific half-season with the Columbus Crew in 2014, then was a key part of Costa Rica’s best-ever run in the World Cup that year, before being sold to Serie A club Palermo.

In Columbus, Gonzalez truly looked like a world-beater, the kind of center back who would be the best in the league. And while I think he had some good times in Italy, he also became a goat at a couple very competitive clubs, and I think he was ready for a change of scenery by the time he joined the Galaxy.

In 2019, he looked like a shadow of the player he had been last time in MLS. Gone was the smart play, the ability to keep the action in front of him, able to snuff out fires when necessary. And again, it was hoped he would improve this year with a year of settling under his belt.

Gonzalez started the first two games before the coronavirus shutdown, and the first two games of the MLS is Back Tournament. LA’s record in those games: 0W-3L-1D, 10 goals allowed.

It would be a mistake to say that those results and all the goals shipped were Gonzalez’s fault, but it was also pretty apparent he was not an anchor, or maybe he was, but in the sense that he was pulling the rest of LA’s defense down. The club has perpetually tried to replace Daniel Steres, but frankly Steres’ level was once again vastly superior to Gonzalez’s in 2020. Another player in the Steres mode, Nick DePuy, was also better than Gonzalez across the season.

Here are Gonzalez’s stats in 2020:

Giancarlo Gonzalez 2020 LA Galaxy Statistics

2020 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2020 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
Regular Season 10 9 754 1 0 3 2 1 1

So after the El Trafico blowout loss in the MLS is Back Tournament, Guillermo Barros Schelotto had seen enough and benched Gonzalez, the player playing just nine minutes over the next 12 games. While LA went 4W-0L-2D in the first six games Gonzalez didn’t play, and that could have been a data point that he was a root cause of the Galaxy’s previous troubles, but that turned out to be a mirage, with LA losing six straight from there.

So it wasn’t a surprise that Schelotto went back to Gonzalez, and he started five of the last six games of the season. He did get red carded in the final El Trafico, and was therefore suspended in the final game of Schelotto’s run with the Galaxy, the lopsided loss at the Portland Timbers.

That wasn’t the end of his story, however, as Dom Kinnear’s first game of the year as interim head coach was Gonzalez’s best game in a Galaxy kit, a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake. Why did Gonzalez look like a new player? The answer was stunning: Schelotto persistently played Gonzalez on the left side of the center back partnership, while Kinnear moved Gonzalez to the right side of the pair, the player’s natural spot.

“[Kinnear] told me that he thought by watching training sessions through the season that I felt better playing on the right side of the center back line,” Gonzalez told reporters in the postgame press conference that night through an interpreter. “I’m right-footed, so it’s obvious. I do feel more comfortable there. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to play there and was able to help the team get a victory tonight.”

I had already made up my mind that Schelotto wasn’t really on the level tactically in MLS but that whole subplot with Gonzalez floored me. It’s like when an NBA head coach doesn’t bother drawing up in-bounds plays — figuring out players’ best spots in soccer and putting them in those spots is beyond obvious. Why in the world did Schelotto persist with playing Gonzalez and Steres on the opposite sides for two years instead of where they feel most comfortable?

I don’t want to use the “wrong side” explanation to dismiss all of Gonzalez’s shortcomings as a player this season, because I don’t think it covers all sins. His final two games of the season weren’t as bright as the game against RSL, although he didn’t look totally hopeless, either.

But I do think Gonzalez basically being played out of position for two years ought to color our perceptions of him, too. Would he have still made mistakes if he had played on the right side? Yes. Would he have made as many, looked as absolutely hapless as he did? I doubt it. I think the mental stress of being slightly out of position messed with him enough that it really did sabotage him to an extent, and that’s truly maddening.

Gonzalez remains under contract to the Galaxy in 2021, although there have been rumors about an offseason return to Costa Rica. I think if Greg Vanney becomes the next Galaxy coach, as expected, the former defender will make up his mind of Gonzalez’s prospects in short order. If he thinks Gonzalez can perform in LA, I expect the player to improve considerably, because Vanney largely had a good track record with a stable of defenders in Toronto. If he doesn’t, I think Gonzalez will be moved on in short order.

So we’ll see what happens but I’m inclined to think he’ll be around next season. I’m not saying he’ll become a world-beater again, but I think there’s a solid chance he’ll have an improved campaign in 2021 if he’s back and on the field. But time will tell on that count.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.