A passion for a sport is often passed down, generation to generation, through a love of a particular team. But when that’s not the case, we often find our way into a sport through a smaller access point: a particular player who captures our imagination, who gets their hooks into us.
Who that player is probably says more about us than it says about the player. Most little kids are plainly and openly fans of the best player they know. In basketball, it was Jordan, then Kobe, then LeBron. In soccer, maybe Ronaldinho, then Ronaldo or Messi. Children — still in the throes of figuring out what they’re going to become and how to get there — are naturally attracted to successful, talented players who embody the acme of what a human athlete can do.
As we get older, though, our joys and satisfactions become more subtle. While we might continue to appreciate the overwhelming talent of superstars, we can also develop a better appreciation for the largely unheralded, more in-between games of players who will never be household names. These are players with particular skillsets who found a seam they could work and then worked it and worked it.
When it came to getting seriously into soccer, I found that I gravitated toward the often underappreciated role of the centerback, and — when it came to MNUFC — toward Francisco Calvo. Although he was one of the marquee signings for the team prior to the start of their first MLS season, it's rare that a central defender will ever garner the kind of acclaim and recognition afforded strikers and flashy wingers. Calvo was already an established cog in the Costa Rica national team when he was signed, but it’s fair to say no one could foresee just how important he would become to the Loons when he joined the team.
Last season, Calvo started and played all 90 in each of Minnesota United’s 10 wins, plus did the same in four of the team’s six draws. He earned the captain’s armband early in the year and helped to shore up a foundering defense, first alongside Brent Kallman and later with Michael Boxall after he joined the squad. As the season progressed, he also showed flashes of potential both in setpieces and with the ball at his feet.
This year, Calvo has struggled at times with inconsistent form, but never a lack of heart. He’s stayed fiery, defending the goal and the team itself with passion while preparing for his first World Cup appearance with the Costa Rica national team. Although Costa Rica failed to make it through to the Round of 16, Calvo will certainly return to the team re-energized and with a wealth of meaningful experience that will help him do the captain’s job. Like many young players, the 25-year-old Calvo makes mistakes, but that’s nowhere near the whole story for him. It’s more than just the highs and lows when it comes to a player who looks to be a foundational piece for a young franchise, and that's a huge part of why he's become the team's first All-Star after being picked to the squad by Atlanta United Head Coach Tata Martinez.
There are moments for Calvo that you might miss: his hand upraised as he exits the tunnel at TCF Bank Stadium, eyes closed against a setting sun; kneeling on the field with his arms outstretched before kickoff; celebrating Miguel Ibarra’s first goal of 2017 in a coordinated dab. He wears his heart on his sleeve, in some ways literally: the rose tattoo on his left hand is for the twin daughters he and his wife lost in a miscarriage last year. “They are always in my body,” he told the Pioneer Press. On his right wrist is a script letter “G” for his son, Gael, born last September.
As an observer, it can often be hard to tell what makes a good center back or a good captain because so much of the work — the positioning, the communication, the time spent in the locker room or at practice — goes unnoticed. Some of it we can see if we look closer, but some of it will always go unseen. That doesn't mean we can't feel it, though. It's the stuff that draws us to a player. It's the sense that between all those moments is a connective tissue, an earnestness and open-heartedness that makes Calvo easy to root for, to get behind, even as we're still only just getting to know him.