The anniversary of a significant milestone passed almost unnoticed earlier this year, the effects of which have persisted when Costa Rica prepares for international competition.
Fire defender Gonzalo Segares spent his 24th birthday (Oct. 13) getting ready to play for the Ticos against Haiti. A native of San Jose, the nation's capital, he'd attended Virginia Commonwealth University, been picked by Chicago in the third round of the 2005 SuperDraft and played nearly three MLS seasons before being recalled by the national federation for the first time since playing for the U-17s in 1998.
That callup came in early September of last year. Segares earned his first full caps in friendlies against Honduras and Canada. The toughness and tenacity he'd displayed at VCU, for which he started every one of the 84 games played in his four-year career, and shown on the left side of the Chicago defense is now a staple of the Costa Rican national team as well.
Segares is a serious candidate for MLS Defender of the Year honors partly because of his attacking instincts, yet with two goals and two assists in 22 matches he's not threatening any league scoring marks for defenders. Much of his value is steeped in getting his priorities straight.
"He's just one of those defenders you'll take any day, because he's a defender first," says Fire assistant coach Chris Armas, who played three seasons with Segares before taking a position on Coach Denis Hamlett's staff. "There's nothing foo-foo about him. He relishes the defending and getting a piece of guys. When you watch the best players in the world, they have that good balance, that cognitive ability, that instinctive ability."
In his four seasons with the Fire, Segares has played under three different coaches in a variety of systems and formations: three in the back, four in the back, on the left side of a five-man midfield. His mobility and versatility can be utilized in several places yet the dogged determination is most valuable on the back line, where mistakes and lapses in concentration are often costly.
"Gonzalo has some natural abilities that stick out when you first see him," says Armas. "He was very raw as a defender, but you immediately paid attention to the bite and instinct he has a defender to hunt players down, to hunt the ball down. He never shies out of a tackle, he's hard-nosed, he competes, he plays to win. He plays with a big heart. It matters to him."
Segares was named the Fire's Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, and as a member of a tight Chicago defense among the leaders in fewest goals allowed, is a major candidate for the MLS Defender of the Year award. He's a vital cog in a strong defensive unit on a team that has come very close to reaching MLS Cup the past few seasons, and the addition of Brian McBride to an already potent attack by Cuauhtemoc Blanco gives the Fire increased hopes of its first league title in a decade.
For Segares and Chicago, though, it all starts at the back.
"It was great playing with him, you can always count on him, you'd take him any day," says Armas of his former teammate. "It's great watching his progress."
Hometown: San Jose, Costa Rica
2001-04: Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
2003: Williamsburg Legacy
2005-08: Chicago Fire
(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)