By Ridge Mahoney
A dominant performance that included the tying goal in the Galaxy’s MLS Cup 2012 triumph over Houston certainly boosted the stock of 24-year-old defender Omar Gonzalez.
Yet a pair of former U.S. defenders point out how ready he is to step into the national team back line can’t truly be assessed by his performances in MLS. The data to be accumulated in 2013 will answer many questions, though the friendly against Canada in late January won’t be all that definitive.
Neither Alexi Lalas nor Marcelo Balboa disputes the immense potential of Gonzalez, who came back from a torn ACL to steady the Galaxy’s defense and guide his team to a second consecutive league title. But they stress it will take more than the friendlies Gonzalez has played to prepare him for Hexagonal competition, which starts in February on the road.
“I think the kid’s got the mentality and in practice it’s one thing, but stepping on the field in Honduras, I don’t think he’s ready for that,” says Balboa, who earned 128 caps between 1988 and 2000 and works Colorado and U.S. games as a TV analyst. “You’ve got to make sure you do everything right because a year from now he could be a starter.
“Playing in December or January against a team like Sweden that doesn’t bring a full team, you can’t judge anything on that. You can see he’s got potential but it’s going to count in the big games.”
The Hexagonal schedule, during which the USA plays three of its first four matches on the road, gets crowded in June when three games are played in 12 days. This leads right into the Gold Cup, so the odds are good that if Gonzalez doesn’t get called early in the year, he’ll surely be summoned in late spring and summer.
“To me the Gold Cup will be a huge test for him,” says Balboa. “If he gets invited in, that’s the test I’ll be looking at because you have to get out of your group, there will be a semifinal, there will be a final. This is a competition; there’s money for all the players, it’s getting back at Mexico for the last Gold Cup. There’s a lot of pressure.”
Gonzalez took some blame for the goal L.A. conceded against Houston in MLS Cup by playing Calen Carr a step onside as the Dynamo forward blew past central defensive partner Tommy Meyer, but his timing error wasn’t nearly as severe as Meyer being beaten. Yet those are the types of situations that often decide qualifiers and are closely monitored by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he scouts his players.
“As a defender, your life is based on the fact you can do 99 percent right and that other one percent is what people are going to look at,” says Lalas, a long time teammate of Balboa who was capped 96 times in 1991-1998. “Take the injury out of it, he’s a much better player than he was a year ago in terms of reading the game and understanding stuff.”
A goal scored by Seattle in the Western Conference finals second leg exploited a couple of areas in which Gonzalez needs improvement. As his headed clearance floated out of the Galaxy penalty area, Gonzalez was caught in no-man’s land while marking Eddie Johnson.
When the Sounders’ left back Zach Scott lobbed the ball back into the penalty area, Gonzalez was caught inside Johnson, and didn’t have the speed nor the positioning to prevent Johnson running onto to the ball and drilling into the net. It was a good goal, yet Johnson is the type of forward the U.S. encounters all the time in the Hexagonal.
Maybe Gonzalez thought he’d get help from Meyer but his partner held the center, fearful of leaving Fredy Montero open. With Meyer holding deep, Gonzalez couldn’t play Johnson offside, but he could have gotten goalside before the pass was played to prevent the run at goal. Or he could have used a sly tug or sneaky elbow to defuse the situation, as both Lalas and Balboa admitted they did many times.
“This is where Omar’s learning curve has to be accelerated,” says Lalas. “He’s started to recognize what he’s good at and he’s the best at. But he also has to recognize where his weaknesses are and limit his exposure to those. You always have to be thinking, ‘What if?’ When to get to the international level, that thinking has to be even quicker.
“Every defender has a weakness and every defender has an Achilles’ heel, and certainly his lack of speed or mobility is something that I’m completely familiar with. As you get more experienced you learn to not put yourself in those positions. And if you do get into them, you having a bag of tricks at your disposal is very important.
“By the time the referee’s head has turned, the pull has already happened. It’s all very subtle and nuanced. That’s the way defenders compensate for whatever weaknesses they may have. We’re all illusionists back there and the best ones are created over time."
There’s not a lot of time for Klinsmann to shore up the back line, for which Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo are still performing well despite their ages (both are 33). Geoff Cameron is making a strong case for one centerback slot, and there’s an opening to take over for Bocanegra, eventually if not right away. Maurice Edu has been given some looks.
The former U.S. defenders point out that outstanding MLS defenders Tim Ream and Chad Marshall didn’t establish themselves with the national team. Gonzalez is blessed with the ideal size (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) for a modern centerback, is decent on the ball and as both of them say, is a “monster in the air.” But he also needs some time.
“I think he is the future of the national team in the back line,” says Balboa. “You bring him along slowly, you don’t sacrifice a game, a qualifier, and say he’s ready to play. Everybody’s got their own opinion, which is fantastic. Jurgen has his, and Bruce Arena has his, but at the end of the day, this is international soccer. It’s not MLS. It’s a lot faster.
“Guys like me and Alexi, we watch the back line, because that’s where we played. I look at it and I love the future for these guys. Boca’s getting up there, but I think Geoff Cameron surprised everybody by how well he’s done. I didn’t think he was a centerback. But he found that position and now look at him. And I think Omar Gonzalez is that next guy.”