Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. — From being named MLS Cup MVP as his LA Galaxy successfully defended their 2011 championship in December to starting in all-important World Cup qualifiers, Omar Gonzalez has accomplished quite a bit during the past six months.
The scary part? Gonzalez is only beginning to scratch the surface of the player he can become.
A busy summer awaits Gonzalez at both club and international levels, but the multitude of games the 24-year-old centerback is set to partake in for the LA Galaxy and U.S. Men’s National Team will provide him with more than one of the busiest stretches of his career. They will also give Gonzalez more room to grow.
“He’s still, even though he’s in this for about five years, a player that has a little bit of peaks and valleys and we’re trying to see if we can get him a little bit more consistent,” said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena. “That’s what I’d like to see. Omar playing at a consistent level is much better for us and for Omar than rather having the great games and the games that sometimes are subpar.
“We want him to be consistent. If he’s consistent, he’s a very good player.”
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is surely hoping for the same type of consistency from the aerial authority. Gonzalez struggled mightily in his first World Cup qualifier in Honduras back in February, but responded brilliantly about a month later by helping the Americans record a pair of cleansheets.
First, Gonzalez fought off blizzard-like conditions in a 1-0 home win over Costa Rica and he followed that up with another strong defensive showing against Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and the rest of archrivals Mexico in a scoreless draw at Estadio Azteca.
The two-time MLS Cup champion concedes that those bounce-back performances served as a “big confidence-booster” and helped him further adapt to the style of play at the international level, but Gonzalez also came away with something he appears to deem even more valuable.
“Bigger than that, more games with those guys and getting to know them and their personalities on and off the field,” said Gonzalez. “The more I’m there, the more comfortable I’m going to be.”
That clearly was not the case back in February. Klinsmann elected to start Gonzalez – who, with just six caps to his name, is still inexperienced internationally – in central defense in Honduras over grizzled veteran and former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra.
The decision to throw Gonzalez into the fire came as a shock to many observers considering the degree of difficulty traditionally associated with road qualifiers in CONCACAF, and it was made to look even more puzzling after Gonzalez was directly involved in the second-half Jerry Bengtson goal that doomed the Americans to a 2-1 loss against Los Catrachos. Gonzalez hesitated in tracking Bengtson’s run inside the penalty area for just a moment but that was enough for the Honduran forward to bury a square pass into an open net.
“It was definitely a difficult first time being with the first team and never meeting some of those guys and just meeting them for the first time,” said Gonzalez on how he looks back at the game now. “The Honduras game happened and I think what’s great is that I got over it and just forgot about it and focused on the next games.”
While Gonzalez rebounded well with his two starts in qualifying in March, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Not only can Gonzalez develop a better understanding with his U.S. teammates and find a bit more consistency in his game, but he can also work on his decision-making with the ball at his feet as well as his leadership skills.
History, however, seems to indicate that Gonzalez will accomplish all of that and then some.
“We learned in the first year that he started out pretty raw but he kept progressing and getting to the next level,” said Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan. “The following year, it was, ‘How do you build on that?’ Now, he’s at a point where he needs to be a leader for us, which he’s starting to do, and he’s making his way into the national team.
“Sometimes guys will progress to a certain point and then they stop but he seems like he just keeps progressing and every step that comes he handles it and he handles it well and then he moves on to the next step. We fully expect that he’s going to continue his rise and keep getting better.”