THE mere utterance of Jose Goncalves’ name would prompt mixed reactions from Hearts fans. Some held him in high regard, others saw only potential during his four years in Edinburgh.
Yet in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the Portuguese defender is very much a prized asset.
The new MLS campaign is gathering pace and Goncalves is eager to continue prospering as captain of New England Revolution. He led the club to the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season and was named 2013 MLS Defender of the Year. Having played every minute of the campaign, he is a pivotal figure under head coach Jay Heaps.
It’s all a far cry from times at Hearts when he was banished from the team by then-manager Jim Jefferies as his contract neared an end. Vladimir Romanov’s influence back then caused chaos and Goncalves is infinitely more settled now at the age of 28. New England converted his loan from FC Sion into a permanent transfer in November, allowing the player to plan for another year as a prominent figure Stateside.
“The first year went well so my girlfriend and I decided to stay for one more year,” Goncalves told the Evening News. “The league is growing, but I think people don’t see a lot of it from the outside. The level is not the same as Europe, but it is improving. In the future, I think the MLS will be a strong league. People come to the US and think the MLS is easy. It’s not easy. It’s not as straightforward as you think.
“I cannot say how long I will stay. I like it here, but it’s also different. At the moment, I try to enjoy it and play my best football. It’s important my girlfriend is happy as well as myself. If everything goes well, we could maybe stay for another couple of years, but I cannot say I will stay for four or five years.”
At the back of his mind, Goncalves still harbours ambitions of representing Portugal. He has three under-21 caps, but yearns for full international recognition. He may have to move back to Europe again to get it. “At the moment, I think so,” he replies when the question is put to him.
“If you play in Europe, you have a bigger chance to be at the level to play for such a big national team like Portugal. I’m playing well and getting good results here so what happens at the end of the year is something I can’t influence right now. Of course, I still want to have a chance to play for the Portuguese national team. Even if I know it will be really difficult, it has always been a motivation for me.
“With good games and good results you can improve your chance, but, at the moment, I think the European leagues are at a higher level than the MLS. That doesn’t mean that the MLS is a bad league. I just think the teams have more experience at a higher level in Europe. There is a lot more competition over there.”
His point is worth making. New England Revolution’s home is the 68,756-capacity Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Crowds usually hover around the 20,000 mark, however, creating an atmosphere more echoing than exciting. “In Scotland, football is part of the culture. It’s the biggest sport, people are really passionate about it and they know how to do it and be successful,” explains Goncalves.
“Americans are also passionate about football, but not like we are in Europe. The top sports in America are basketball, baseball, American football and hockey. You need time to bring football, or soccer as they call it, to the same level because they have grown up with all these other sports.”
Others speak similarly about soccer’s ranking on America’s sporting ladder. Yet it cannot be a major turn-off given superstars like Thierry Henry, David Beckham and recently Jermain Defoe have all crossed the Atlantic Ocean to continue their careers in the MLS. Andy Driver, Goncalves’ former Tynecastle team-mate, returned to Texas in January for another year with Houston Dynamo. “We played against each other last year and we’re still in contact through texts and phonecalls. Driver is a great guy and we are still friends. Every time I got the chance I kicked him, though,” laughed Goncalves, who made no mention of the fact this season opened ten days ago with Dynamo thumping Revolution 4-0.
“When I was with FC Thun in Switzerland I played against Henry in the Champions League. That was ten years ago. Last year we were in Arizona for a tournament for two-and-a-half weeks and Henry was in the same complex. I had a chat with him in the lobby over coffee and I told him I played against him when he was with Arsenal. He didn’t remember.”
All the travelling involved in the MLS has provided Goncalves with some tough challenges. As a Portuguese of Cape Verdean descent with Swiss nationality, he is more than comfortable swapping countries and cultures. The problem was understanding different American accents in different states.
The player speaks six languages in total – Italian, French, German, Portuguese, English and Spanish – but deciphering the tones of Texans, Californians and others was another proposition altogether. “I still have my Scottish accent sometimes,” he laughs. “I don’t have an American accent but I can understand the Americans better than when I first arrived. They have an accent everywhere you go, like Houston or Dallas or Los Angeles. I’m okay with it now. It’s very easy for me because I speak all these languages. I’ve never had an issue with moving to different countries. I try to adapt myself to the football and the lifestyle.”
No matter where he is, he says he always keeps tabs on events back in Gorgie. “I follow Hearts as much as I can in newspapers and on the internet. It’s sad to hear from friends and old team-mates that Hearts are in trouble financially.
“I was in Scotland for four-and-a-half years and I had some great times. I only want the best for Hearts and I will always follow them, even when I stop playing because they are an old club of mine. I wish I could do something to help them, but it’s a difficult situation.
“I only hope they can be better soon.”