By Ridge Mahoney
Minutes into the biggest game of his international career, Omar Gonzalez encountered an “uh-oh” moment.
Returned to the starting lineup after sitting out the warm-up games and getting only a stoppage-time cameo in the second World Cup group match against Portugal, Gonzalez joined his teammates in dropping back to defend the German attack. The ball went out to Jerome Boatengand Gonzalez had only a split-second to deal with the hard, low cross skidding at him through the six-yard box. A misplay could produce the dreaded error that shares his initials: own goal.
His attempted clearance didn’t wind up in the net but it did spin high in the air, generating high anxiety for a few seconds until the Americans got the ball out of danger. He’d been recalled after losing his spot to Geoff Cameron; would this be a costly decision by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann?
No, just the opposite. Gonzalez shook off the miscue to play one of his best games in a U.S. jersey. A pair of excellent slide tackles in the first half confirmed his timing and technique hadn’t deteriorated, and he lasted the full 90 minutes despite going the distance for the first time since a league game more than two months ago: April 19 against Vancouver.
“Those things happen,” he said after the 1-0 German win by which both teams advanced to the round of 16. “No one has a perfect game. It’s what you do after you do have a little hiccup. That was a little scare but you move on and you look towards the next play and that’s exactly what I did. I looked to keep on making little plays.”
A minor knee injury he suffered in late April hampered his ability to train full-time once the national team convened May 15, but he says he’d recovered long before his recall to the starting lineup. Excluded thus by the oft-mentioned but seldom-explained “coach’s decision,” Gonzalez didn’t feel any need to dwell on the past.
“I’ve been healthy now for a while,” he said. “When I stepped back on the field I felt like I was ready to go. It’s just that I think my injury let Cameron in and Jurgen was showing a lot of confidence in Cameron. Things change. Now, since I got my opportunity, I definitely wanted to make the most of it.”
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena knows the Gonzalez situation from several angles. He coached the U.S. team from 1998 to 2006 and drafted Gonzalez with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. He’s the only coach to win four MLS Cups; Gonzalez led the Galaxy to victory in 2011 and 2012.
“I’m pleased that he got a chance and took advantage of the opportunity,” said Arena. "I thought he played well."
Klinsmann’s decision to keep Cameron in the starting lineup despite Gonzalez’s return to fitness puzzled some observers and certainly caused consternation in Galaxyland. Arena didn’t wish to speculate on the issue.
“Well, Coach Klinsmann is the one you should talk to about that,” said Arena. “But it was probably an easy kind of game for Omar to come into, because they really sat back. They had to defend a little bit of space and it wasn’t very demanding on him physically. He did a solid job, for sure.”
However, Arena did address the imposing workload of club and international play that can cause a lack of focus -- “switching off” in soccer parlance – that can be exploited by a shrewd opponent. It’s not an inherent glitch in American players but rather a product of environment. MLS games grow more competitive every year, but the intensity within squads to earn and keep starting spots still lags behind that of most big foreign leagues.
“I think some of the issue is with our young American players in Major League Soccer, regardless of their talent level, or their accomplishments,” says Arena. “They sometimes don’t know how to handle this. At big clubs around the world, there’s an apprenticeship that they learn. They get beat up a little bit and they learn how to earn their way.
“Sometimes our young Americans get a little bit full of themselves and they’re hard to keep under control and keep focused the right ways. It’s fairly typical. I think Omar’s had a little bit of that. But he’s a good kid. He can be a better player than he is now and he’s just got to have the right focus and mentality and he’s going to continue to get better.”
Galaxy assistant coach Dave Sarachan praised Gonzalez for staying cool in a cauldron of pressure, and quickly getting up to the pace despite a lack of recent action.
“You’re playing in a game where everything’s on the line and you haven’t played, so you know the nerves are there,” said Sarachan. “Aside from the initial, shaky stuff, I thought as he settled in he broke up a bunch of plays.
“He got into good defensive positions and really didn’t get exposed. For him, to get a game like that under his belt where it meant something is just a testament to him and the confidence they had in him.”
Regaining confidence is an important step in Gonzalez's accelerated development; it was just 18 months ago that he earned a regular spot in the U.S. back line as Klinsmann began cutting veterans and installing younger players. He’d been told a few days prior to the game that he’d be starting, and his performance showed that time had not been frittered away.
“It’s something that you just want to manage the moment,” he says. “In this moment, playing against Germany, playing a game to see if you’re going to advance or not; this is the type of game that I’ve always dreamed of being in. There’s not much thinking into that. Once the whistle blows, its business time and all the other emotions go out the window.”