Raul “Chino” Gonzalez will have plenty of memories from his professional soccer debut.
His debut against New York Red Bulls II and his first goal against the Rochester Rhinos will certainly standout — as will seeing his Richmond Kickers jersey for the first time — but no personal moment was bigger than when the former Ocean Springs Greyhound and Memphis Tiger made his first start in the fifth game of the season.
“I got my first assist and we won 2-1 off one of my assists and then a ball that I played in from the wing. I’d say that was a good welcoming,” Gonzalez said Monday, two days after the Kickers’ season ended. “The fans were extremely happy, I was extremely happy, we won the game and it was just a good welcoming game for me to step in there.”
Although the Kickers missed the playoffs, Gonzalez, who registered two goals and one assist in 24 games, called his debut in the USL “amazing.”
“I had a good time,” said Gonzalez, who trained with several MLS clubs during the winter before catching on with the USL’s Kickers. “The level of play is really good and I learned a lot as a rookie. Thankfully I did well enough to earn a starting spot early in the season and maintained it throughout the season.”
Richmond manager Leigh Cowlishaw said Gonzalez is already technically sound but if he wants to stand out at the USL level and have a chance to climb the ranks he’s going to need to become more of a student of the game and evolve as a professional. Watching more game film — both of himself and higher levels — should go a long way.
“He’s going to get in dangerous positions. He can hit a decent ball. The key to success at this level is making the right pass at the right time and doing it on a consistent basis,” Cowlishaw said. “He has the technical ability to make the pass. It’s can he remain calm and do it consistently under pressure?”
Despite being a rookie, Gonzalez still led Richmond in chances created, a stat he’s particularly proud of.
“My goal was to create chances, to put in a lot of crosses to be finished and create for the team off corner kicks. I was just trying to create more opportunities for the team so we could have better chances to score,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve just always been involved in the attack and trying to make something happen, whether it’s play the ball to the person who will score, score or play the third pass to get it down the field. I’ve always been involved in the attacking area.”
Cowlishaw said the team has high hopes for Gonzalez, especially in his versatility after he spent time this year at both forward and wingback.
“We see some potential at right back or wingback in a 3-4-3 and he’s performed quite well just as a No. 7 in a reg. 4-3-2-1,” Cowlishaw said. “He’s certainly an attacking player but we’ve noticed he’s very difficult to beat 1-v-1. For his size, he’s very good in the air, too.
“He’s somebody we feel had a decent year and can only get better.”
Gonzalez originally signed a one-year contract with the Kickers with a team option for 2018. Gonzalez had his exit interview with Cowlishaw on Monday. Both said they expect to finalize his option soon.
“I have learned a lot from the coach and staff,” Gonzalez said. “I just started to make a dent into knowing the guys and getting a feel for the system of play. Signing another year would really increase my ability to learn more and push forward into making the playoffs as a team.”
‘Up-and-coming’ American: Gonzalez talked in mostly hushed tones while answering questions about himself Monday. Asked about former teammate Chris Durkin, who’s currently starting for the United States in the Under-17 World Cup, Gonzalez came alive.
“He’s amazing, an amazing player,” Gonzalez said. “He’s only 17, but he’s a very mature guy. He’s a great player and works hard. He’s one of the best players I’ve seen play or played with in my life. He’s amazing.
“He’s definitely an up-and-coming player. He’s very technical and has a lot of gifts at a young age that most people learn later in life. He’s a very smart player and definitely deserves all the notoriety and everything coming his way.”
Durkin, who’s already a D.C. United prospect at age 17, appeared in 11 games for the Kickers.
U.S. Men’s National Team: The USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Gonzalez, like many onlookers, was shocked by the team’s failure.
“I totally thought we were going to qualify. We destroyed Panama and I thought we were going in,” he said. “I guess it just didn’t go our way. Now we just have to look forward to the next World Cup.”
Raul ‘Chino’ Gonzalez statistics
19 (11 on target)
34 (27 won, 7 lost)