The Portuguese center back stepped into a leadership role and helped turned the Revolution into a defensive powerhouse.The New England Revolution are headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and no one player has meant more to the club's turnaround than Jose Goncalves.
The six-foot-two center back only joined the Revs in January, but 10 months later the Portuguese has become indispensable to his team's cause, club captain, and now, Goal USA's Defender of the Year.
Goncalves, 28, is one of only three MLS field players to play every minute of every match in 2013, but that statistic hardly begins to tell the story of what the center back meant to his club this year.
The Revolution allowed 1.29 goals per game in 2012, as the team finished second-to-last in the Eastern Conference with a 9-17-8 record. With Goncalves in the mix, the team lowered its goals-against average to 1.12 this season and more importantly, improved its record to 14-11-9, good for third in the East.
Although he's good in the air, strong in the tackle, and even able to add the occasional goal (both of his strikes were game winners), the biggest contributions Goncalves made were intangible. In a defense that sorely needed leadership and organization, the center back provided both in spades.
It only took until May for the Portuguese to grab the captain's armband, and he immediately took ownership of the Revs' defense. Not only did Goncalves turn in strong individual performances, but he made his entire back line better. Rookie right back Andrew Farrell settled in immediately, and was third on the team in minutes while left back Chris Tierney had one of his best seasons, tying a career-high in assists.
Goncalves was also instrumental in the success of his center back partner, whether it was Stephen McCarthy or A.J. Soares. Add it all up, and the Revs also posted a club-record 14 shutouts, ranking second in the league.
Perhaps no game summed up Goncalves' contributions to the Revs better than last weekend's do-or-die regular season finale at the Columbus Crew.
Early in the match, Goncalves suffered a strained hamstring, an injury which he later admitted made it difficult for him to even walk. Knowing his team needed to win to make the playoffs, Goncalves waved off a possible substitution, and instead stayed in the match, winning header after header and earning his team another clean sheet in a 1-0 win.
The performance clinched his team a playoff berth, and added another entry in a rapidly-building resume for MLS postseason awards.
There were other strong candidates for the honor, none more so than Red Bulls defender Jamison Olave, who finished second in Goal USA's voting. Just like Goncalves, Olave was an offseason arrival, and the veteran center back was instrumental in New York's Supporters' Shield-winning campaign.
The Red Bulls finished 14-6-5 when Olave started, and 2-3-2 when he did not. The team also kept all 10 of its clean sheets this season with Olave in the lineup. The center back even chipped in with a career-high four goals, a couple of which were highlight-reel variety.
Rounding out the top four in Goal USA's voting was Sporting Kansas City anchor Matt Besler and Colorado's breakout left back Chris Klute, who has gone from the lower divisions to one of MLS's best in just over a year.
In the end though, the award belongs to Goncalves. His combination of leadership, organization, grit, and strong performances were instrumental to his team, and will likely result in more individual recognition as MLS award season rolls on.