Gonzalo Segares joined Fire teammates Sean Johnson and Orr Barouch in representing his country this month after being recalled to the Costa Rican national team for two friendlies at Cuba and Venezuela to close out the Ticos 2011 campaign.
The call up was Segares’ first under recently hired manager Jorge Luis Pinto as well as being the Fire left back’s return to his national side since appearing a pre-World Cup friendly at Slovakia in May 2010.
Similar to the United States’ January training camp, Segares was included in a roster made up of mostly domestic-based Costa Rican players that are in the midst of their offseason, though the veteran Fire defender was joined by fellow MLS countrymen Michael Umaña (Chivas USA), Roy Miller (New York) and Rodney Wallace (Portland) along with former Fire defender David Myrie (now playing with Norwegian side Frederikstad).
“It’s always special to get called up to the national team,” Segares said. “To have this opportunity again after about 18 months away is really motivating for me to get in the mix for the team that will begin qualifying next year.”
Having led the Fire with career highs in competitive appearances (38) and minutes played (3408) during 2011, Segares admitted to taking time away from the playing field following the end of post-season training November 11. The postseason respite perhaps made the first few days of training around the December 11 match at Cuba more difficult to deal with.
“The training [under Pinto] has been really demanding physically and mentally. I came in after three weeks of vacation so my fitness level was very low. It was hard at first to go from zero to practicing at one-hundred percent. We did double sessions most days and practices were very intense.”
Cuba in December?
December isn’t a time where a lot of national team activity goes on worldwide, but the purpose of the December 11 match at Cuba was to celebrate the centenary of the nation’s first-ever match, held December 11, 1911 against none other than Costa Rica.
A place that so few Americans are able to travel (I still remember the few brave U.S. supporters that ventured there for a 2008 World Cup qualifier), Segares touched on the night-and-day differences between the Caribbean island and much of the rest of the Western world.
“Going to Cuba was a very nice experience. We didn't get to see much of the country but the people were very kind. What strikes you is from the time you get off the plane you see a country whose infrastructure is stuck in the 1950s. In the streets you don't see many cars but the ones that stick out are all the 1950 Chevrolets that are kept as if they were brand new. It was a very interesting experience.”
As for the soccer side of the trip, Segares entered as a halftime substitute for Wallace before Cuba’sHeviel Cordovés put the hosts up 1-0 from the spot in the 57th minute. The visiting Ticos left it late as Kenny Cunningham headed home a cross from Diego Estrada in the 92nd minute to rescue a 1-1 draw in Havana.
On to Venezuela
In an end-of-the year tour that might have driven the U.S. State Department crazy, the team returned to San Jose for the resumption of camp ahead of the final match of 2011 away to Venezuela on December 22.
This time, Segares started and went the full 90 during the match in Barqusimeto, as the visitors used goals from Wallace and Jose Miguel Cubero gave the side its first victory under Pinto.
Segares played mostly in a defensive posture, unable to move forward while locking down the left side of the field in the 2-0 victory.
The game against Venezuela was the last opportunity for most of us to impress the coach to be taken into consideration for the next year’s qualifiers. It was a hard game, playing in front of about 30,000 people and knowing the improvements Venezuela has made as a team recently but it proved to be a good victory for us.”
Looking Ahead to Qualifying
With 2011 in the books, Pinto will begin finalizing his plans for the start of CONCACAF semifinal World Cup qualifying, which sees his side grouped with the likes of Mexico, El Salvador and Guyana beginning in June.
Given his country’s heartbreaking scenario of failing to qualify regionally via a last-gasp header from U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein in October 2009, before falling to Uruguay the next month in the intercontinental playoffs, Segares sees extra motivation for his country heading into 2014 qualification.
“I was very disappointed with how the last qualifiers ended. We were so close and to lose in the last minutes was devastating. There's always motivation to play the qualifiers and since we didn't make it in 2010 this time is a must-win and there is a lot of pressure on everyone. Right now we hope to be ready for the beginning of qualifying and to have a good start and keep the momentum going through every stage, unlike in 2009 we took the foot off the gas at the end after we had a great start.”
After seeing his country make 10 coaching changes over the last decade and three since his last call up, the veteran left back is hopeful for more stability through the 2014 qualifying cycle.
“This time the Federation is trying to have a process hopefully with one coach and not three like last time. Pinto is a coach that knows a lot and focuses on every detail so you have to concentrate one-hundred percent in the practices.”
The Colombian manager has previously been through the revolving door of national team coaches, having previously guided Costa Rica through the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Pinto has deputized two accomplished former Costa Rican players as his assistants in former Chicago Fire striker Paulo Wanchope and defender Luis Marin. Both members of the Ticos 2002 and 2006 World Cup squads, the pair have over 200 caps for Costa Rica between them.
As for Segares’ chances at the qualifying roster, his main competition at left back will be Wisla Krakow defender Junior Diaz, who has appeared out wide for most of the team’s major matches this year. Still, the seven-year Fire veteran could well push for time in the squad, leading to the possibility of more international matches next season with pending Olympic duty for Sean Johnson and Israel U-21 duty for Orr Barouch. This all follows a 2011 campaign where the Fire saw only Guatemalan midfielder Marco Pappa leave the team to play for his country.
Whatever happens, Segares is thankful for his health over the last year, the ability to return to his national side and believes this month’s camp will better prepare him for Fire preseason training starting January 20 in Ave Maria, FL.
“I think last year I was fortunate enough to stay away from injuries. I feel very good physically and had a few weeks off so this time with the national team has helped me to get back in shape. I learned a lot from the coaches so I feel, even over the last few weeks, I’ve matured as a player. Overall this time is going to help me be prepared for preseason to come in good shape and be ready for 2012. After two years away from the playoffs, we must qualify this year and look to win it all.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.