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Profiles in Courage

The Importance of Omar: On Gonzalez's Rapid Rise

When the Hex began six weeks ago in Honduras, Omar Gonzalez was a last-minute inclusion in the starting XI. Just three matches later, he looks like grizzled old hand who is a sure starter.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
March 28, 2013
2:51 PM
At the Azteca, Gonzalez was a candidate for Man of the Match. He frustrated Mexico’s superstar attackers with an early block and several important clearances, headed or otherwise. How did a guy whose caps you can count with both hands get the start in one of the biggest matches the United States national team will play? It’s not that the LA Galaxy center back has been outstanding, though he hasn’t been bad; it’s that he’s been standing at all. Jurgen Klinsmann’s already depleted defense took another hit Tuesday evening with an injury to Clarence Goodson, who paired with Gonzalez on Friday against Costa Rica. That meant Gonzalez was the anchor of a defense that featured Matt Besler, the Sporting Kansas City defender making his first World Cup qualifying appearance, a midfielder as the left back, and Geoff Cameron—a Premier League quality player but one who had struggled—on the right.

We’ve expected for a while the 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year would be the future of the national team, but it looks like he’s the present as well. The 24-year-old was thrown into the thick of things in the 2-1 loss to Honduras and said after the match he wasn’t pleased with his performance. “After looking back on it, I wasn’t as disappointed,” he said last week. “I thought that it was a big game to step into and it was definitely tough. The circumstances were really difficult, and I think that I held my own except for that one little mishap at the end.” He’s referring to a 79th-minute goal by Jerry Bengston who slipped past an oblivious Gonzalez after Geoff Cameron and Tim Howard both misplayed a Catracho through ball. There were actually a couple occasions when Gonzalez was beat during that match, but he played well in a shut out against Costa Rica. He repeatedly threw himself to the snowy ground to make a crucial block on a shot from Bryan Ruiz or another Tico forward. His performance Tuesday went a long way toward convincing everyone he was there to stay on a back line that has lacked in both stability and ability for years.

In Gonzalez, Jurgen Klinsmann has everything he could want in a center back. At six-foot-five Gonzalez has the size needed to play center back and showed in MLS Cup that he can score a header off a set piece. It’s easy to forget Gonzalez’s national team emergence could’ve come sooner. He skipped out on the 2012 January camp to go on loan with FC Nuremberg but tore his ACL in his first training session with the club. (It wasn’t the first time a foreign team had pursued the defender. This week it was revealed Club América also had interest in Gonzalez after the 2011 season.) Once he recovered from that injury, he was a key player in LA Galaxy’s championship season—one that had stagnated before the former Maryland Terrapin returned. But it’s hard to imagine anyone thought he’d be this important this quickly. Instead, there’s no doubt about his place on the team in June for matches against Jamaica, Panama, and the home match against Honduras.

Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and is ASN's CONCACAF correspondent.

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