Heading home from a community appearance with a local youth soccer program, Manny Gonzalez had a problem.
“I can’t function if I’m hungry,” the Fort Lauderdale Strikers midfielder said. “Do you mind I grab some food?”
The appetite of a professional soccer player is bottomless, and the Strikers’ 24-man roster includes men from eight different countries including Brazil, Spain, Haiti and Peru. But in the middle of all that is a graduate of Northeast High School whose height is listed optimistically as 5’6″, who spent a year training with the Strikers before they offered him a contract and who remembers watching professional soccer as a boy at the stadium where he now plays it.
Which is to say: rather than tracking down the nearest plate of Brazilian moqueca or Peruvian lomo saltado, Gonzalez opted for Chinese takeout that’s only slightly more exotic than his usual standby, a Publix chicken tender sub. The Strikers’ lone local player is neither the team’s flashiest nor most flamboyant.
Gonzalez is a local today, but he wasn’t always. At 8, he moved to South Florida from his home country of Colombia, a place where soccer is the number one sport. His father played professional soccer there, and his brother has also played professionally in the States. As a kid, Gonzalez supported the now-defunct Miami Fusion, South Florida’s short-lived Major League Soccer franchise. The team played in Fort Lauderdale at Lockhart Stadium between 1998 and 2001 after a deal at the old Orange Bowl fell through and they were, by most accounts, a disaster. But Gonzalez knew watching them that he wanted to go pro.
His youth soccer resume is a checklist of some of the area’s top club teams. He played for the Coral Springs Storm, Parkland Predators, Weston Fury and Boca Juniors (where he played alongside Toronto FC and United States national team star Jozy Altidore). Aside from regular season competitive leagues, Gonzalez also played with the Florida State Olympic Development Program as well as state and regional teams.
After graduating from Northeast – where he was named to the All-Broward soccer team – he received a soccer scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University. During his college career, he also played for several top amateur clubs.
But he wanted to go pro.
“It wasn’t easy for me to find a professional team,” he says. “There were a lot of tryouts I had to go to.”
He had a tryout in Colombia that came to nothing. Several US clubs expressed an interest, but nothing happened. He left the country to give it a go in England but soon returned to the States.
In 2012, Gonzalez spent the year training with the Strikers as a practice player – a non-contracted player who isn’t on the match roster. He signed with the team in January of 2013.
“He was just training to earn a contract. He was coming in every day, wasn’t part of the squad, wasn’t getting paid, but he was here every morning along with the rest of the team, training hard,” says Fort Lauderdale Strikers communications manager Steven Bernasconi. “When the roster was being set, he was the first new player to sign to the team.”
It had been a long battle, full of rejections, but the kid who had once watched professional soccer at Lockhart was now a man with a contract to play it there.
“My parents came to America to give [my brother and me] a better future,” he says. “Seeing them work hard got me to work really hard for what I wanted.”
His professional debut came on May 11, 2013 against Minnesota United FC at Lockhart. With his family looking on, he provided the assist for David Foley’s winning goal as the Strikers beat Minnesota 2-1.
This year is Gonzalez’s fourth with the club. In the North American Soccer League – the de facto second tier of US soccer, an equivalent to triple-A baseball – player turnover can be high. The Strikers 2016 roster is almost entirely different from the 2015 one. In those circumstances, four years with one club marks a unique longevity.
“It’s rare to see a player remain at a club for so long,” says Gonzalez’s teammate and friend, José Angulo. “Despite all of the turnover you see with players and clubs at this level, Manny is still here. He’s loyal. I think the fact that he’s been here four year shows not just his quality as a player, but also a person.”
On the pitch, Gonzalez plays smart. He says that his extra-keen eye for the game, his ability to map out potential plays and actions, comes from being smaller than most of the players on the field – he checks in at 5’6″, 150 pounds. “It’s compensation.” He tries to be a half step ahead of every play, positioning himself accordingly and knowing what his next move will be before receiving the ball. These skills are important for any professional player, but especially for midfielders like Gonzalez.
Off the pitch, Gonzalez has made a friend in teammate and now housemate, Angulo, who is also Colombian. “Manny and I share the same heritage, which I feel helped us make a connection when I first joined the Strikers,” Angulo says. “We clicked almost immediately on the field, and then off. We’re roommates now and we get along great. We’re always hanging out and laughing together. He pretty much knows every line from every comedy movie that has ever come out .”
But for Gonzalez, relaxing is something you do away from the soccer pitch. On the pitch, he’s always working towards the next opportunity.
“I always want to shoot for the highest,” he says. “The best.”