By Ridge Mahoney
Before we leave the Honduras-USA Hexagonal opener for the time being, examining the Omar Gonzalez situation is mandatory.
For a first competitive cap in a hostile road environment, Gonzalez didn’t play poorly. He’s obviously strong enough and tough enough to get the job done. But games are won and lost at critical moments, which is when the inexperienced player – no matter how talented – may hesitate or falter. This befell Gonzalez several times during the match and unfortunately twice he came up wanting.
Everyone identified his error on the winning goal, when instead of dropping behind goalkeeper Tim Howard to protect the net he glanced over his shoulder and reacted too slowly as forward Jerry Bengtson banged home the winner. Yet he was also culpable on the first goal: When Honduras equalized shortly before halftime as the teams re-set following a corner kick, he inexplicably backed off pressuring Victor Bernardez, who thus had all the time and room he needed on the right flank to launch the cross that Juan Carlos Garcia lashed into the net with a spectacular bicycle kick.
Yes, had Gonzalez instead tried to close down Bernardez the cross might have been delivered anyway. Yes, Michael Bradley should have challenged harder as Maynor Figueroa chested the ball into the middle, and perhaps Geoff Cameron could have taken a foot in the face to prevent Garcia’s amazing overhead volley. But Gonzalez's bad judgment set the sequence in motion.
(Too bad the BeIN Sport announcers didn’t recall a similar goal scored by another defender, former U.S. international Marcelo Balboa, during a Gold Cup game in 1991. Everyone remembers the bike Balboa narrowly missed in the 1994 World Cup, but he struck a dramatic winner at the Rose Bowl to cap a 2-1 comeback defeat of Trinidad & Tobago.)
As Bernardez chased down a corner kick, Gonzalez simply cannot do what he did: leave his opponent free and run back into the middle while Bernardez sized up his options. Bernardez showed during his first MLS season in 2012 with the Earthquakes, during which he lashed home a free kick and also first-timed a goal from a corner, he’s very efficient with the ball at his feet. In that situation, whichever player is nearest to the opponent with the ball has to defend; close down the space, guard the byline, and prevent the cross if possible. Maybe another center back can be left alone in that situation but not this one.
Center backs at the international level don’t have a lot of wiggle room. Every ball played over the top, each pass slotted into the channel, and every high ball that drops into their area could be decisive. At least a dozen times a game, center backs are tested, and the Honduran defenders gave their younger American counterparts a good lesson in handling themselves with three valuable points on the line. Past editions of the Honduran team featured dangerous attackers but a vulnerable back line; that weakness has definitely been strengthened, and they can also contribute offensively. Garcia nailed the winner, Figueroa created both goals.
The Gonzalez-Bernardez confrontation was an interesting preview of what will probably be many encounters, and endless comparisons. They will face each other when the Quakes and Galaxy play, and could well be the leading candidates to claim Defender of the Year honors.
Bernardez missed a chunk of last season and didn’t win that category, though he was a finalist. He did pick up the Newcomer of the Year award. Gonzalez won Defender of the Year in 2011 and along with 2012 winner Matt Besler and a few others will vie with Bernardez as the leading candidates for 2013.
Bernardez, 30, has the edge in experience – he also played in Europe and Mexico – over his U.S. counterparts, as does Figueroa, 29, who has played in the Premier League with Wigan since 2008 and is closing in on 100 caps. Considering that Gonzalez and Cameron ended with the game with a combined total of 16 caps, they will need to learn their lessons quickly if they are to successfully steer the U.S. back line through what is shaping up to be a hotly competitive Hexagonal.
Somebody must assume Carlos Bocanegra’s leadership role if the veteran is indeed being relegated to being a backup. Cameron joined Stoke City a few months ago and is playing right back so the director’s job could fall to Gonzalez, who organizes for the Galaxy. Besler has taken on a commander’s role for Sporting Kansas City, which posted the best defensive mark in MLS last year, yet he just earned his first cap against Canada.
Gonzalez, 24, is certainly a national team star in the making. Yet the U.S. needs are immediate and he may be required to shine quite brightly quite quickly.