The conversation usually centers around Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and when he’s available, Landon Donovan. Tim Howard also gets his due, but when discussion shifts the U.S. Men’s National Team’s best player, Omar Gonzalez’s name has never come up.
And that makes sense. Before tonight, he would have been seen as too inexperienced (five caps), too young (24), or just lacking the kind of international resume to sustain a place in the debate. He’s just recently become a first choice player in Jurgen Klinsmann’s XI. How can he be compared to Dempsey and Bradley?
But after Tuesday night’s performance against Mexico, you can you see a future where Omar Gonzalez is the U.S.’s best player. Because if he’s not the best player in the pool right now, he’s quickly becoming the most important.
Leading his team to a clean sheet at Azteca, Gonzalez gave a performance reminiscent of last December’s MLS Cup final. In Carson, Gonzalez dominated at the back and headed home the opening goal while leading the LA Galaxy to Major League Soccer’s crown.
He didn’t quite replicate that impact on Tuesday, but against a much higher level of competition, his contributions were just as notable.
As his fellow defenders Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, and DeMarcus Beasley struggled through the first half hour, Gonzalez was there to bail them out, sweeping up as his teammates left space for Mexico to exploit. As the U.S. adjusted, Gonzalez was able to be even more decisive, providing decisive clearances both on the ground and in the air. With Mexico able to put in 20 crosses (to the U.S.’s eight), Gonzalez’s aerial prowess and role as the defense’s anchor was constantly tested.
Seven clearances, five recoveries, four interceptions, and a blocked shots – these are the stats that describe the individual performance. The main contribution, however, was seen on the scoreboard.
To keep a clean sheet at Azteca, it was going to take some a great performance. As a team, the U.S.’s defense met that standard. As an individual? Gonzalez stood out.
Going forward, it remains to be seen how much this changes our perception of Gonzalez. Same with Brad Guzan. Same with Matt Besler, who looked strong over the last hour. Standout performances with the highest stakes tend to stick out in people’s minds.
For Gonzalez, he is already recognized as the best defender in Major League Soccer. He’s already become the only defender to win MVP at an MLS Cup final. His value to the star-laden Galaxy was proven during last season’s absence, and during his most recent time with the national team, he’s shown how much he’s progressed from the young, limited player who was exploited in his first international minutes.
Omar Gonzalez is clearly no longer the player he once was. He may be the best defender Major League Soccer’s ever produced, and after Tuesday’s performance, we know he’s the most important defender in the pool.
The lingering question, after a dominant performance in the biggest match of his career: How good is he? It’s too early to say for sure, but if he’s capable of replicating tonight’s performance, then he’s the best the U.S. has got. Not best defender – best player.