SEATTLE — A late save on a Luis Tejada chance, and Tim Howard had preserved another United States shutout, their third in five qualifiers. The goal would have been meaningless, the States already two up by the time Panama generated their best chance of the match, but it was another instance when defender Omar Gonzalez saw an error ruin what would have otherwise been a standout night.
“For most of the night, I thought that we did pretty well,” Gonzalez said after the U.S.’s victory. “There was that chance at the end, but that’s why you have Tim Howard – to make those saves in case they do get behind.”
While Howard did show his quality, defenders don’t get credit for needing their goalkeeper to bail them out. For Gonzalez, the moment fits a pattern that started with his first start in Honduras, his mistakes in the U.S.’s Hex opener contributing to a 2-1 loss. Slowly, those mistakes have become less meaningful, but for a player that regularly dominates long stretches of play, the errors stand in stark contrast to play that would otherwise place him among CONCACAF’s elite.
“Hopefully there comes a point soon where I put in a good, solid 90 minutes with no mistakes and help this team win,” Gonzalez said, still lamenting the Tejada chance while managing to stay positive about his overall performance.
And Gonzalez has plenty to be positive about. As the U.S.’s right center half, he had the responsibility of supporting right back Brad Evans, a man targeted by Panama from the match’s opening moments. Runs behind the natural midfielder by left wing Alberto Quintero and left back Carlos Rodriguez would have found early success, but to Gonzalez’s credit, Panama was never able to threaten Howard through Evans..
“They were going after Brad quite a bit,” Gonzalez conceded, asked to assess how he adjusted to the tactic. “I just wanted to make sure [Evans had] enough cover there. There were a couple of times that guy got around Brad, but I thought he and I both did well to get around the ball and make sure that [Panama] didn’t make the play.”
Run your mind over the rest of the U.S. player pool, and it’s difficult to come up with another player capable of providing that kind of protection. And in the 37th minute, as he reacted to a give-and-go at the top of the U.S. area, Gonzalez gave fans a perfect example of why, despite his momentary lapses, he remains the team’s top defender. Picking off Tejada’s pass and playing it into midfield, Gonzalez quickly defused what has been Panama’s most promising moment.
Not coincidentally, the fact Jurgen Klinsmann has been so forgiving of Gonzalez’s errors enables those kind of plays. Confident enough to force the pass while smart enough to read the ensuing play, Gonzalez eventually won the ball. Had be been more risk averse, he may have merely elected to keep the play in front of him and hope to block a shot.
“It just helps me personally to settle down a little bit and know that if I do make a mistake, it’s fine,” Gonzalez said of Klinsmann’s approach. “You learn from it, and you just try to forget about it as quick as possible.
“And (you) keep trying those things, because if you don’t try it, then you’re not going to get any better … [Klinsmann’s approach] gives every player that much more confidence to do something on the field.”
In aggregate, the results have been convincing. Gonzalez is the only defender to play every minute in qualifying’s final round, a stage that’s seen the U.S. give up only three goals in five games. If that’s with a Gonzalez that’s still coming into his own on the international stage, how good will the team be once the 24-year-old finishes his adjustment?
“There have been a lot of situations in a short period of time,” Gonzalez says, talking about being throw into the fire during the Hex. “I’ve been [putting] a lot of information in my head. Take the good stuff. And the bad stuff that happens, just forget about that.
“Like the Belgium game, things like that. I think all those are learning experiences. I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable with every game.”
It’s the kind of confession fans may not want to hear from their first choice defender, somebody who’d ideally be the unit’s most stalwart performer and leader. But while his ever-present role in final round qualifying hints at that stature, Gonzalez is not ready to call himself the group’s leading man.
“I don’t know if it [I am], but I’m happy to keep on playing,” was Gonzalez’s response when asked if he’s become the de facto leader in defense. “I’m happy to be stepping on the field and contributing to these performances.
“We’re one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup. I’m just really happy to be out there and a part of something that’s bigger than myself – just getting it done.”