Gonzalo Pineda is just one of a group of native-Spanish-speaking Sounders, a core that has bridged the language gap both on and off the field and helped newcomers do the same.
Spend any significant time in a foreign country behind the language barrier, and you’ll quickly learn the value of nonverbal cues. Speech might be beyond you, neighboring conversations nothing more than an incomprehensible babble, but you’ll be surprised how easy it is to communicate with a simple gesture.
Pointing is an important skill, the ability to convey your apology with a shrug and sheepish smile even more so.
Give it some time, and some common words and phrases will begin to stick, flickers of comprehension flashing in your mind.
For Sounders midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, whose last season was his first outside his home country of Mexico, that phrase was “step up.”
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“In Mexico, we use different words and phrases,” Pineda said. “ … When we want the defense to step up, we say, ‘salir,’ which means ‘get out.’ They told me to ‘step up’ and I was like, ‘What is this?’ ”
Pineda is just one of a group of native-Spanish-speaking Sounders, a core that has bridged the language gap both on and off the field and helped newcomers do the same.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid starts players slowly, sticking to basic commands – left, right, push forward, stay back – using hand signals when necessary. During preseason training camp in Tucson, Ariz., new Colombian defender Andres Correa joined in an agility drill in which assistant Brian Schmetzer barked out “red” or “blue” to indicate which direction players should sprint. It took only a few rounds before Correa caught on, even burning teammates to the finish line.
Schmid can speak some Spanish, but new assistant coach Ante Razov has stepped in as a more-fluent translator. Schmid can tell Correa to stay deeper on his half of the field, but Razov can tell him why.
“(Razov’s) Spanish is better, and he can say it in a more eloquent manner,” Schmid said. “I can get that base expression through. He can get the nuts and bolts through.”
Some players take to the new language quicker than others. Fredy Montero, Seattle’s Colombian-born former designated player, was a fast learner. When Schmid, as coach of the Galaxy, brought Guatemalan forward Carlos Ruiz to Los Angeles, Ruiz picked up English in six months.
Defender Leo Gonzalez has been with the Sounders since 2009, and though he speaks English far more fluently than he lets on, he admits that he could be further along.
“If you want to learn it, you can learn it,” Gonzalez said. “But you have to study, you have to take class. If you want to be lazy like me, it’s difficult.”
Players from similar backgrounds also help both ease the transition and serve as impromptu translators.
Pineda, Gonzalez, Cuban-born Ozzie Alonso and Guatemalan Marco Pappa have bonded off the field, too, and their wives have helped each other find the Seattle area’s best Latin food stores.
“That makes it easier for our on-the-field relationships also,” Pineda said. “We have that support, which is very important to help you adapt.”
The quartet — Pineda in particular — has taken it upon itself to help Correa adjust, pulling him aside for pointers when need be.
“Well there are lots of Latino players on the team that have really helped me on those aspects,” Correa said through a translator, “even at times talking to coaches. I have also been learning small things when it comes to the language and now some of the things the coach says I can understand. If not, I ask the Hispanic players and they help me.”
Correa and Seattle native Darwin Jones, a pair of Sounder rookies who grew up a continent apart, have also begun to develop an understanding.
Correa plays left back, and Jones has been slotting in at left wing, a partnership in which balancing defending with attacking is key. Against New England in the Desert Diamond Cup a few weeks ago, teammates struggled to find their rhythm in a lineup of unfamiliar faces, but Correa and Jones meshed well.
One would push forward while the other tracked back, then vice versa, reading each other’s cues. They overlapped regularly and set up the first goal, as Jones completed an attacking move Correa helped create, crossing for Kenny Cooper to tap in at the far post.
“Soccer is soccer,” Schmid said. “Football is football, whether you’re playing it in Mexico or Costa Rica or Argentina or Germany or England or the U.S.
“There are things you just understand on instinct.”