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World Cup Gives Minnesota United’s Francisco Calvo a Fresh Start

Sep 1, 2017; Harrison, NJ, USA; Costa Rica defender Francisco Calvo (15) stands with a young fan before the FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a turbulent season for Minnesota United’s Francisco Calvo. The centerback has come under criticism from fans and pundits as the Loons’ defense has allowed 18 first-half goals over 14 games, with Calvo starting 12 of those contests. Combine those early concessions with Minnesota’s attack averaging just 1.2 goals per game, and the Loons have regularly found themselves playing from behind while setting a pace that currently has them missing out on the playoffs.

After MNUFC’s May 12 loss to San Jose at home, Calvo took aim at his critics.

“If you want to point at me, point at me,” he said. “I’ve been playing as a pro eight years — I know what this pressure is.”

Sunday morning, Costa Rica will make its debut in the 2018 World Cup when it faces Serbia in Samara, Russia. Called up as part of Los Ticos’ roster, the world’s largest stage presents a pair of opportunities for Calvo: to represent his country and to use a blank slate as a platform to let his talent and passion do the talking.

Pro Soccer USA spoke to assistant coach Mark Watson about the Minnesota team captain’s departure to play in the World Cup, and what it means for both the player and club.

“He’s still a young player — we have to keep that in mind,” Watson said. “He’s very talented. For a defender, he’s technically very gifted. Along with the club, he’s someone that is continually improving and growing.

“We hope he finds himself in the starting XI in the first game of the World Cup. I think he’ll play a part at some stage with Costa Rica.”

Jun 3, 2017; Kansas City; Minnesota United assistant coach Mark Watson (left) and manager Adrian Heath gesture to players during the second half of the match against Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Watson, also a defender in his playing days, had a 17-year professional career, spending five seasons in MLS and making 78 appearances for the Canadian national team. Familiar with having to make midseason transitions between club and country, Watson was bullish on Calvo’s ability to quickly adjust to international play.

“It’s an interesting one because you’re completely focused on your club when you’re here,” he said. “Then you go away and it’s incredible, passionate national team games. Fran’s been doing it long enough that he manages it really well.”

Watson highlighted the challenge of getting a national team to jell — when players have less time to build familiarity with one another than they do during club seasons — as one that is particularly tricky for defenders.

It is then to Costa Rica’s and Calvo’s advantage that manager Óscar Ramírez has selected an experienced squad. Ten of Calvo’s teammates have over 50 caps each, and the centerback is far from a greenhorn with 36 appearances for Los Ticos.

A familiar formation might also help Calvo get his mojo back. Ramírez favors a three-man back line that effectively becomes a five-man back line when defending deep. For Calvo, playing centrally in the four-man back line favored by Adrian Heath has been an adjustment.

“It was a bit of a challenge, at least initially, with Fran as he’d played on the left side of that three, or even as the wingback,” said Watson. “I think when you start in a back three and you’re the wide one, there is a bit of a challenge to playing in a back four and knowing there are only two centerbacks in the middle of the field as opposed to three. It does take a bit of time and Fran’s doing well with that.”

Watson was pragmatic when talking about losing Calvo to international play as Minnesota United is set to make its first-ever appearance in the U.S. Open Cup’s Round of 16 on June 18 in Houston.

“[Calvo]’s a good player, so you always want your best players here,” Watson said. “It’s an old cliché, but it’s an opportunity for someone else, and Brent Kallman’s come in and he’s been waiting for that opportunity. It’s down to [Kallman] to embrace it and do well, and make decisions difficult when Fran does come back.

“We don’t spend too much time on it. We’re really happy for Fran. We’re really proud of him. We know it’s a huge honor to play for your country and especially to play at the World Cup. He’s gone with our blessings, but we now have an opportunity for another player to come in and do well and test our squad depth.”

With a parting thought about what Calvo will likely feel taking the field for Costa Rica, Watson reflected on his own time representing his native land.

“It’s the highest honor regardless of the country you’re from,” he said. ” To wear that jersey and represent your country and stand there and hear the national anthem before the game, it’s a really proud moment. I was fortunate enough to do that many times. I think there’s a lot things you can do at the club level, but to play for your country and have the hopes of a nation on your back is a pretty special thing.”

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