Gonzalez learned painful lessons in loss to Honduras

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.

7 comments about "Gonzalez learned painful lessons in loss to Honduras".
  1. Scott O'Connor, February 11, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.

    My recollection is that it was Fabian Johnson who stopped pursuing the Honduran who crossed the ball in that was then chested to Garcia who struck the bike. Not sure why Gonzalez would chase someone from his central position out to the wing to prevent a cross....

  2. Ross Ulmer, February 11, 2013 at 5:21 p.m.

    I don't think Omar's inexperience in general was the problem, or certainly not the primary one. The real problem was the unfamiliarity the defenders had with each other.
    On the ck - from playing at LA - Omar is accustomed to a midfielder or outside back covering the flanks so he can stay in the middle and do what he does best -control the airspace in front of the goal. And on the 2nd goal he never suspected Cameron wouldn't think safety 1st and simply clear the ball, like his LA teammate Dunivant would have. So again he was caught by surprise by his fellow defenders actions or rather inactions. On both goals he could have done better but mistakes are going to happen when you get surprised by the actions of a teammate.

    So IMO the US gave up 2 goals mostly because of the back 4's lack of experience together - not because of Omar's "lack of experience."

  3. Karma Newland, February 11, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.

    The article has it right. Your excuses don't work at the professional level. You don't stop your run because you think someone else will handle the situation. On a corner, you don't charge out, and then turn and run, leaving someone open for an uncontested cross. Scott-you are wrong. It was a corner. Gonzo was the 1st to react to the outside threat...and then he retreated without supplying pressure. Normally that would be the LB assignment, however, it was off an opposite corner. Fabian was pulled inside on coverage. Regardless, 1st man to the ball. Many mistakes were made. Gonzales made many of them. The article stands on its merit.

  4. Vince Leone, February 11, 2013 at 6:54 p.m.

    Obviously others also made mistakes, but Omar made CRITICAL mistakes. The criticism is warranted. I'm sure he will improve, but you could see in this game that he was not as good as the Honduran defenders in any way--he was slow of thought and slow of foot compared to them. He certainly does not have the foot skills that the Hondurans have. Victor Bernardez is quite good with his feet. Garcia's skill is evident from the bike alone. It's hard to imagine Omar attempting, much less succeeding, at something like that. For now, Omar's main "skill" at this level is his height. Unfortunately, the U.S. seems to have slim pickings at his position.

  5. Kevin Sims, February 11, 2013 at 8:23 p.m.

    No world class player is ever to be excused for not expecting the unexpected. Matches at this level turn on moments. In defense, always be wary and alert for the worst case scenario. In attack, always be on the prowl and alert for the best case scenario and mistakes of the defense. These mentalities make all the difference.
    I suspect USA soccer will be better for these harsh lessons.

  6. Kent James, February 11, 2013 at 10:12 p.m.

    Although I thought Ridge was being a bit harsh on Gonzalez at the start of the article (Cameron's mistake on the 2nd goal was much worse than Gonzalez'), by the end he makes clear that it is because the US needs a center back to step up quickly, and he's the most likely candidate to do so. He's doing the opposite of damning him with faint praise; he's praising him with a slight critique...

  7. Kerry Ogden, February 13, 2013 at 10:38 a.m.

    To Scott, Gonzalez originally was marking the Honduran on the corner kick then left this player to recover the ball which led to the goal! Instead of staying with the player he went back to a central position relying on his team mate to pick up on his error of not closing down on the Honduran player! If Gonzalez is going to play a CB position he has to remain in that position and not wander around on the pitch relying on other players to pick up on his position. I would like to see Klinnsman give Tim Reams another chance at this position.

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