Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
RECIFE, Brazil — When the U.S. Men’s National Team camp began in May, one of the biggest concerns among fans and media was how Omar Gonzalez would fare at the World Cup. There were fears that he would struggle against the elite competition the Americans would face in Brazil, and a left knee injury sustained just before the camp got underway made things worse.
Gonzalez eased those fears a bit on Thursday afternoon, as he turned in a strong showing against Germany in the first World Cup start of his career.
Gonzalez was a surprise starter in Jurgen Klinsmann’s lineup for the Group G finale at a rainy Arena Pernambuco, filling in for the same centerback that took his starting spot at the beginning of the camp. Geoff Cameron had gotten the nod in each of the U.S.’s last fives games prior to Thursday, but his struggles and the accumulated fatigue from playing in the Americans’ first two World Cup games opened the door for Gonzalez to play in the match that helped the U.S. reach the Round of 16.
“Well, everyone is so important in our group and we wanted to give (Cameron) a break and we don’t kind of have the luxury to say that all the players they’re going to go every four days in games and always on the highest level,” said Klinsmann. “Having Omar coming now in, getting his game and kind of really kick starts his tournament now is for us very important because down the road we will have always have these players coming in and they’ve got to do their job.
“We were sure with Omar coming in now, he was ready. He worked so hard for the five, six weeks we’re in camp now and he was ready for it and he showed that on the field.”
While Gonzalez was indeed solid against Germany’s cast of talented attackers, he got off to a somewhat slow start in the match. He looked shaky on the slew of crosses that were whipped in during the opening 20 minutes, even whiffing on a clearance attempt on a low ball played in from the right.
The 6-foot-4 Gonzalez settled in after that rough opening and came up with two timely sliding tackles in a matter of moments that thwarted two promising German attacks from ending with shots on goal. Truth be told, the U.S. could’ve been down early or by more if not for the play of the veteran centerback, who looked a lot more like the player who shone last year than the one who has drawn much criticism in 2014.
“I felt like I was pretty solid today,” said Gonzalez. “I did my job and lately I haven’t been getting much luck since the very beginning of camp with my little injury, but I’ve always said that I was going to stay ready and I got my opportunity today. I’m just happy that I could step on the field and do whatever I could to help this team go through.”
There were a couple of plays in which Gonzalez admittedly could have done better. Two rather simple bouncing balls gave him trouble near midfield, but he recovered well and did not allow them to throw him off his game. He continued to have a short memory and focused on the next play instead of dwelling on the ones that did not go his way.
“I’m not going to perfect,” said Gonzalez. “No one’s comfortable out on that field. It’s the way that I’ve got to manage with being uncomfortable. After that little hiccup (early on), all of my clearances were pretty good and the next thing I’ve got to fix is not letting the ball bounce in the midfield. Hopefully, I can get that one out first.”
Gonzalez and centerback partner Matt Besler did such a good job for much of their 90-minute shifts that Germany had very few clear chances from the run of play. They both snuffed out several attacks and neither could do much about Thomas Muller’s gorgeous game-winning curler in the 55th minute.
It was the type of collective performance that U.S. fans had seen on several occasions in 2013 – when Gonzalez and Besler started side by side in big games like a scoreless World Cup qualifying draw vs. Mexico at Estadio Azteca – and came with Gonzalez fighting some expected jitters.
“My first 90 minutes in a World Cup, there was a lot of emotions there, there were a lot of things going through my head,” said Gonzalez. “But I just wanted to take it one play at a time and just move on from there and if I did mess up, focus on the next play. I was just focused on doing my job and helping this team.”
Gonzalez’s performance will likely lead to talk that he should once again start next to Besler in the heart of the U.S. defense when the Americans lock horns with another talented squad in Belgium in the Round of 16 on July 1 in Salvador.
Klinsmann will ultimately have to make the decision and could very well stick with the more technical Cameron, but Gonzalez did enough against the likes of Muller and Mesut Ozil to at least merit consideration for another start.
“He got thrown into the firing line, but he did well, had some good clearances, read the game well,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “It was just about managing it. Between him and Matty trying to manage the back line and the guys in front of them and really not allow Germany to open up and get in a flow. Overall, I think it was good.”