March 5, 2017, Atlanta: Atlanta United defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez soars to the ball over a N.Y. Red Bulls player during the second half on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Atlanta United’s Pirez a center forward who plays centerhalf

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez runs onto the ball about 30 yards from his own goal and sprints down the field. The centerhalf dribbles for 10 yards. Umm, when is he going to pass and go back to defense?

He dribbles for 10 more yards. Still no sign of passing.

He passes midfield, faking out two players as he steams toward the opponent’s penalty box, a place he would typically only be on corner kicks and more than 60 yards away from where he started. Why is he still dribbling?

Finally, he passes to the right wing. But instead of retreating back, he continues to plow forward where he receives the pass back from the wing and one-times a shot that streaks into the corner of the goal. Oh, that’s what he had in mind.

That wasn’t one of Pirez’s recent ventures forward for Atlanta United. That was a run he made while with Tigre in Argentina in 2015 . It seems that Pirez has long been a center forward trapped in a centerhalf position.

“I like playing with the ball and when those opportunities come up in a game I try to take advantage of them,” he said. “Other than that I try to play the safe pass.”

Pirez has become a cult hero just seven games into his Atlanta United career for his runs up the pitch.

The first came against Seattle, where he looked like a taller version of Lionel Messi. First, while splitting two defenders he moved past another onrushing defender by dribbling to his right and into the penalty box. He then moved to his left. While avoiding a teammate who seemed surprise to see the big man in the opponent’s penalty box, Pirez moved to his left and then back to his right, splitting two defenders again, before the play broke down.

Another came in last week’s 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake when he casually picked up the ball in Atlanta United’s penalty box and began moving downfield. His run included faking out Kyle Beckerman, who has almost 60 appearances for the U.S. men’s national team, before finally passing to Miguel Almiron after dribbling it some 40 yards. Pirez actually keeps running down the field before finally slowing down and turning around.

Pirez said he developed his dribbling skills in his native Argentina while at River Plate, which he said put a lot of emphasis on developing technical ability.

But moving forward isn’t why Pirez has been one of the shrewdest signings for Atlanta United (3-2-2), which acquired in January the 25-year-old from Estudiantes de la Plata, the club he joined in 2016 after spending a year at Tigre. Pirez wasn’t getting a lot of playing time at Estudiantes because he was behind two older veterans. Still, before joining MLS he made more than 100 appearances as a pro.

Pirez has started all seven games for Atlanta United and has been difficult to beat in the air or on the ground, similar to his role model, Sergio Ramos. The team has given up eight goals, including two on penalty kicks, and its streak of 260 minutes without allowing a goal earlier this season is third-longest this season.

He said Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino encourages any of the defenders to move the ball forward if there is space because is can create numerical advantages. Even goalkeeper Alec Kann said he doesn’t care if Pirez saunters up the field. Typically, either Carlos Carmona or Jeff Larentowicz will drop back from their holding midfielder to fill in at centerhalf.

“And then they always yell at us to get back really fast,” Pirez said laughing.

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