Raul Gonzalez sat in his Philadelphia hotel room Monday night and thought back at the circuitous route he took to get to the City of Brotherly Love.
“That’s a long story to where I’m at now,” said Gonzalez, who goes by “Chino” with friends and family.
Chino wasn’t kidding. Here’s the short version: The former Ocean Springs standout injured his hamstring early in his senior season at Memphis in 2016 and as a result missed the MLS prospects combine. Although he went undrafted, Minnesota United FC saw promise in the Coast product and brought him in as a trial player. He trekked with the expansion club to camps in Arizona and Orlando, a preseason camp in Portland, Oregon, and back to Minnesota before being one of the last cuts prior to their season opener March 3 at Portland.
It was a kick to where it hurts for Gonzalez, to put it mildly.
“It was really frustrating,” Gonzalez said about being cut. “There was so much. Fitness tests were just outrageous and you work so hard with the team. And then to make it that far, and get so close to getting signed, when he said we were released, we thought, dang, we totally believed we were about to be offered a contract.”
After wondering about his next step, Gonzalez was invited by the USL’s Richmond Kickers to train with the team. His stint in Virginia went so well that he was offered a contract, but just as he was about to put pen to paper he received another call. His door to the MLS wasn’t closed just yet.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Gonzalez said. “I thought for the road to the MLS I’d have to play in the USL for an entire year. It was going to be tough.”
The day he was going to sign with the Kickers, Gonzalez’s agent got a call. It was the Philadelphia Union. The MLS club was interested in bringing him in for a trial.
It was the second chance Chino was hoping for.
“Now I’m here, in a hotel, just waiting for training,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez expected to train on Tuesday with the Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s USL affiliate, before training with the MLS club the rest of the week. It’s a second chance he’s not taking for granted.
“The reason I took this opportunity was because it’s an opportunity with the MLS team again. And worst comes to worst, they’d (likely) drop me down to the USL affiliate,” he said. “I’m ready to get the ball rolling. I’m ready to sign a contract and get stable somewhere.”
Gonzalez said he’ll draw from his experience with MNUFC, which he considered a positive one despite the end result. Perhaps the biggest thing Gonzalez learned from his time with the Loons was to try and make the most of each touch, whether it’s during training or in a game.
“I learned a lot. The pace, tempo and speed of play is so much higher. Everything was more strict. You can’t make mistakes,” he said. “The players who end up starting don’t make mistakes at all. It’s a faster pace. Everything is more technical and less just athletic. People play with their mind more, anticipate the flow of the play and know what they’re going to do before they get the ball.
“The biggest thing is positioning and your first touch, where you’re going to take it.”
Gonzalez was mostly a winger and forward at Memphis and with MNUFC, where he also played some as an attacking midfielder. Adding to his versatility, Richmond liked Gonzalez at right back. So where will Chino play in Philadelphia? It doesn’t matter, he said, as long as he gets a fair shot.
“It’s all up in the air right now,” Gonzalez said. “I’m heading into this camp just looking to take it day by day and not worry about a lot of the other stuff that gets in the way. I just want to be consistent and turn heads. Hopefully good things happen.”
After starring at Ocean Springs, Gonzalez trained at IMG Academy in Florida. He eventually signed with Memphis, where he went on to become an All-Conference USA performer. He finished his collegiate career with 13 goals and 13 assists in 65 games.