[USA CONFIDENTIAL] The U.S. back line is the area where the need of replacements is most dire, and in naming seven defenders to the roster for a two and a half-week training camp and friendlies against Venezuela and Panama head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has gone beyond the usual suspects.
(Click here for the U.S. roster.)
Call this camp the Battle of the Backups, as per his comments: “Ultimately, it will create more depth for us, which you need at this level. I'm very curious and excited to see this group.”
Of course, Klinsmann would be foolish to say otherwise and he didn’t specifically single out the defensive corps. Yet this camp might be more critical for the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez than any other defender.
Fueled perhaps by his frustration at being excluded, and invaluably mentored by a Galaxy coaching staff that included ex-teammate and former U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter, Gonzalez during the 2011 season matured into a true centerback, one capable of handling his own duties and also blotting out the mistakes of others. Granted, the Galaxy’s excellent personnel and conservative system lessened the moments of danger, but not until this season did he stayed locked and loaded for 90-plus minutes most of the time.
In the post-MLS Cup press interviews last month, Berhalter was asked about Gonzalez’s absence from national team (he last played against Chile in January, 2011).
“It will come,” said Berhalter. “It’s stepping your game up. You do it from college to the pros, and then from the pros to the national team, and he needs to do that, take his game to another level. And he can.
“Right now, domestically he’s one of the best, but internationally, he’s not. He needs to take that step. His chance will come. It’s just being patient and doing it here day in and day out, and he’ll definitely get a chance.”
And that’s what this call-up is: a chance.
The most consistent of his three pro seasons earned Gonzalez the MLS Defender of the Year Award, and if he has any illusions about how that trophy translates to the national team, he need only look at two-time winner Chad Marshall of Columbus (2008, 2009), who just signed a new MLS contract but since making his USA debut in 2005 has only 11 caps.
Also on the roster is another Defender of the Year, Michael Parkhurst (2007), who debuted for the national team that same year. He has nine caps.
Fans and pundits clamoring for his inclusion haven’t noticed that Gonzalez (6-foot-5, 210 pounds), like many young defenders in MLS, tends to make up for his lapses through physical prowess. If he’s a few feet out of position or a half-step slow as a chance is developing, no big deal, he’ll get there in time. But at the national team level, time is tight, and if you don’t spot the danger early, you’re too late.
At 5-foot-11, Parkhurst – who lacks the brawniness of a shortish Franco Baresi or Fabio Cannovaro – probably isn’t physically equipped to play center back at the international level, though his reading of the game and poise on the ball are unquestioned.
There’s no size concern for Marshall (6-foot-4, 190), who, like Gonzalez, helped his team take an MLS Cup (in 2008), can win balls and chase them down, and is a force in the air. But he’s not in this camp and hasn’t played for the USA since January 2010.
In that match against Chile, Marshall was replaced by Heath Pearce, who has been named to the January squad. In assessing Chivas USA’s season, head coach Robin Fraser – another former U.S. centerback -- praised the work of Pearce, who moved into the middle from outside back to help solidify what had been a porous core.
“I think the fact he can play anywhere along the back line sometimes hurts him,” says Fraser of the Northern California native who has bounced on and off the U.S. radar screen since 2005. “You can say he played pretty well in the middle for an outside back, but I say he played pretty well in the middle. Period. He’s a very good defender and better on the ball than a lot of people give him credit for.”
Maybe that means Pearce, by default, gets first crack at left back against Venezuela and Panama. Gonzalez’s teammate, A.J. DeLaGarza, can also play both outside back slots yet is coming off a commendable season playing in the middle alongside his former University of Maryland teammate. That pairing may have assisted Gonzalez in displaying greater amounts of a nettlesome element that often derails national team aspirations.
“Consistency,” says Berhalter when asked the main difference between Gonzalez then and now. “The leadership comes, that part you grow into. Consistency is something we’ve been stressing. He’s in his third year now, so we’ve been working on him and looking at video and talking to him about the game. I think we’ve accomplished that, because he’s been a lot more consistent this year. We talk on a daily basis, it’s a constant thing, whether we’re on the field together or off the field, it’s a constant dialogue that we have.”
Perhaps next month American fans will see more of the influence from Berhalter, who has left the Galaxy to take over as head coach of Swedish club Hammarby IF.
Despite the absence of captain Carlos Bocanegra and the rest of the defensive starters, Klinsmann has instilled plenty of competition.
Pearce’s former FC Dallas teammates, Zach Loyd and George John, have been called up and so has the Dynamo’s Geoff Cameron, the former midfielder converted into a defender by Houston coach Dominic Kinnear.
Klinsmann can go big in the middle with Gonzalez, Cameron, or John, or downsize with Parkhurst and DeLaGarza, or mix and match. (Red Bull defender Tim Ream is getting married Jan. 7, so a reunion of Gonzalez and Ream will have to wait.)