The blimp-sized question hovering over the New England Revolution offices this offseason was finally answered on Friday.
Jose Goncalves, who recorded one of finest seasons for a center back in club history during the 2013 season and is a finalist for MLS defender of the year, will return to the Revolution in 2014 after the club exercised the purchase option on the loan deal it secured with Swiss club FC Sion last winter.
“We’re certainly glad that we were able to acquire him on a permanent basis,” Revolution general manager Michael Burns told the team’s official website on Friday. “With what he provided us on and off the field this year, we’re looking forward to him returning.”
Goncalves was one of 11 players whose options were picked up to return in 2014. But there’s no mistaking that securing him for a second season was one of the club’s biggest offseason priorities.
Seeking additional strength and leadership in the back, the Revolution originally added Goncalves in January hoping that he could deliver on both fronts. And deliver is just what the 28-year-old defender did during the 2013 season.
He exhibited a rare blend of physicality and awareness right off the bat during the preseason, and immediately locked up a starting center back spot. Teammates marveled at Goncalves’ ability to force an opponent off the ball, diagnose the action in front of him, and bring the back four together and work as a cohesive unit.
Not surprisingly, the defensive breaches that maligned the Revolution back four in 2012 were on the verge of extinction during the first half of 2013. With Goncalves leading the way, the defense could be called upon to see a game out, and did so on many occasions as the offense struggled to find its identity in the early going.
By April, the impact Goncalves had on his teammates’ was impossible to ignore. Only three months after his arrival -- an arrival that also marked the first time Goncalves, who speaks six different languages, had played in the United States -- he was given the captain’s armband. An honor often given to club veterans and league mainstays was handed to a newcomer, albeit a newcomer few had ever seen in Foxboro.
But Goncalves’ leadership wasn’t confined to pep talks or pre-game speeches -- both of which he freely offered to many of his younger teammates, including the team’s leading scorer, Diego Fagundez, who credited the Portuguese international for helping him emerge professionally in 2013. Goncalves led by example on the pitch, playing every single minute of the regular season and playoffs.
In terms of his performance during those 3,270 combined minutes, Goncalves was in a class by himself. He led all MLS center backs by participating in 14 clean sheets, and was rated among one of the best at his position by many pundits when All-Star ballots went out in June. Goncalves did not get picked for game, but after AS Roma picked apart the MLS All-Stars for three goals at Sporting Park on July 31, many naturally wondered aloud if Goncalves could have stemmed the onslaught of attacking opportunities carried out by the Serie A side.
By summer, it was obvious that Goncalves was enjoying a season to remember. And it was just as clear that the Revolution would need to depend upon their captain in search of its first postseason berth in four years.
Going into their Oct. 5 clash at New York, the Revolution sat in eighth place, with only four games to go. In essence, there was no room for error, especially in the rear. Although they couldn’t escape misfortune entirely (see: 97th minute Tim Cahill goal on Oct. 5, Saer Sene injury on Oct. 12 in Montreal), the captain steered the Revolution to an unbeaten October (3-0-1), and more importantly, to a playoff spot thanks to a fairytale third-place finish.
Although the Revolution were bounced from the postseason in heartbreaking fashion after Claudio Bieler’s 113th minute goal in the second leg of the Conference semis sent Sporting Kansas City to the Conference finals, there was never any question of what his club’s success meant to the skipper. And one need only look at the Revolution’s regular season finale for proof.
Four minutes into its match at Columbus on Oct. 27, the ironman himself pulled up with a hamstring injury that left him with a painful limp. Coach Jay Heaps ordered reserve center back Stephen McCarthy to immediately warm up. But Goncalves played through the pain for 86 more minutes, long enough to ensure that the result the Revolution needed to get to the postseason was theirs.
Goncalves proved his worth many times over during the course of the 2013 season. Given his contributions, it was imperative that the front office find a way to secure his services for a second season. The fact that Burns and the front office were able to do so signals that they and Goncalves have a common interest: to get the Revolution back to the postseason next year.