The circumstances matched the setting. Wednesday was his father’s birthday, and a large contingent of family and friends made the trip to see Gonzalez, who grew up in Dallas. After a rather uneventful first half during which Gonzalez and his teammates neutralized most of what Mexico threw at them, goals by Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo secured a 2-0 victory.
“This rivalry is very important,” Gonzalez told USSoccer.com before the game. “You never want to lose to your neighbor. In the past, these games have been awesome to watch and they’ve been really tough games and important games.
“I’m Mexican-American and that has a lot to do with it as well. There’s just a lot of history in these games and they’re always exciting to be a part of, and it’s a little bit extra for me this time because I’m in my home state, my family’s here and I’m just excited to play in front of them.”
Paired in central defense with Ventura Alvarado, who was making just his third U.S. appearance, Gonzalez timed his jumps and tackles well, and closed down spaces and cut off passing lanes confidently. Seldom was he put under pressure by the sputtering Mexican forwards and while he did scuff a couple of passes, so abysmal was the playing surface those gaffes could be forgiven.
Mexico’s understrength team seldom posted a serious threat and for the most part the Americans were in control as head coach Miguel Herrera emptied his allotment of subs to ignite a torpid attack. So the U.S. got a deserved victory and Gonzalez celebrated his first U.S. start since the World Cup.
Whether it earned him much of an upgrade on the centerback depth chart is another matter. He’d been snubbed by Jurgen Klinsmann since the World Cup, making just one appearance as a sub against Ecuador, and elected to bypass the January training camp that opened just five weeks after he backstopped the Galaxy to its third MLS Cup title in the past four seasons.
It made perfect sense for Gonzalez, who’d been in constant training since January 2014, to take an extended break. But despite his impressive array of titles and honors with the Galaxy, Gonzalez draws nearly as much criticism as he does praise. He’s far from the fittest player and still prone to moments of inattention that can be costly. With the Galaxy, he’s a very good player on a very good team. For the USA, he’s yet to convince Klinsmann that he deserves to be on the field every time.
Klinsmann has ratcheted up the pressure on many players, not just Gonzalez, by bringing in new names and occasionally benching the experienced ones. One of the players on the bench against Mexico was Matt Besler, who had retorted sharply during the January camp when Klinsmann issued his fitness critiques. Besler pointed out that he was preparing for the start of MLS play in early March, not a late January friendly against Chile. Still, Klinsmann used him for the first two games of 2015 and brought him back for the Mexico game.
Since the World Cup Klinsmann has moved Jermaine Jones from midfield to the back line, continued to push John Brooks, and introduced Alvarado into the equation. Of those three, only Jones plays in MLS, and it wouldn’t be all that strange if two players who have won four MLS Cups and two Defender of the Year Awards since 2011 were second-choice for their national team.
Gonzalez and the Galaxy aren’t off to the best of starts in MLS. The post-Landon Donovan era has begun sluggishly with a 2-2-2 record and Gonzalez is one of many players who seem a bit off their game. Klinsmann has maintained his methods of experimentation but among the callups and selections certain players remain off the radar screen.
Last year Chad Marshall of Seattle won his third Defender of the Year Award since 2008 and he’s been excluded entirely since Klinsmann took over the national team four years ago. No one can say for sure that Gonzalez, Besler and Marshall have been downgraded because they play in MLS, and national team coaches pick players for their own reasons, so the ultimate measure for the USA this year is who is chosen for the Gold Cup and how well do they perform.
Until then, the Omar Factor is just one element of how a national team coach goes about his business.