United States' Gonzalez celebrates their victory over Mexico in their FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match in Columbus

The Omar Conundrum: Why Gonzalez is making life hard on Klinsmann and the U.S.

15 Comments

For all the quality Matt Besler has, it’s hard to find an area of his tool set that’s truly excellent. He may be one of the smartest defenders in the U.S. Men’s National Team pool, but unless you work with a guy day-in, day-out, that’s a bit of an unknown. In the skills we see while watching with the Sporting Kansas City defender, the guy is steadily above-average, across the board. Even on throw-ins, he’s very good.

He’s the exact type of guy you want defending your goal, but he does have his limitations. He’s not slow, but some can still run by him. He’s strong enough, but on occasion, can be pushed around. He’s decent on set pieces but not the man you want marking the opposing team’s greatest threat. Even that suspected high game intelligence doesn’t lead to mistake-free soccer. Solid in all areas, the Sporting captain isn’t the ideal matchup against somebody with an elite skill.

Hence, Aurélien Collin. When he’s on his game, the Frenchman is better than Besler, but he’s not always on his game. In fact, that happens so infrequently that the U.S. international is generally considered the superior player. As last year’s playoffs showed, Collin is capable of being the best player on the field, but over the course of a season — when individual games reveal and occasionally slow, foul-prone, and ill-tempered Collin — you’d probably take the more well-rounded, steady presence.

The Omar Gonzalez Conundrum

All of which brings us to Besler’s national team partner. After last night’s game against Mexico, Omar Gonzalez’s play is again under the microscope. The LA Galaxy Designated Player lost Rafa Marquez on Mexico’s first goal and was left hoping the assistant referee would bail him out of his part in El Tri’s second. At other times, when he was losing aerial duels and otherwise looking amiss in his positioning and reactions, Gonzalez looked every bit the player some want dropped in favor of Clarence Goodson.

source: Getty ImagesIt creates a conundrum for Jurgen Klinsmann. As he showed in the 2012 MLS Cup final, Omar Gonzalez has the ability to define games, and while this summer’s challenges will far exceed those the Houston Dynamo posed the Galaxy back then, Gonzalez represents the U.S.’s best chance to stand up to the likes of Germany and Portugal. When he is on his game, the former MLS Defender of the Year is by far the best center back at Klinsmann’s disposal. To choose him along side Besler’s steadying safeguard is to embrace the U.S.’s best-case scenario.

The other side of that coin defines Klinsmann’s dilemma. Like Collin, more games than not, Gonzalez isn’t a world beater, and his mistakes with the United States have become so frequent, people are starting to reassess the risk versus reward. How many Gonzalez errors become too much to justify his place in the starting XI? And is this just a lottery where, in the end, any winning proposition will likely be offset by the mistakes we’ve invested?

It’s been too long since we’ve seen a dominant Gonzalez performance in red, white and blue. It’s been a long time since we saw one for the Galaxy, too. Ever since his MLS Cup MVP-winnig performance in Carson, Calif., Gonzalez hasn’t played like an elite defender. Wavering between very good and too mistake-prone, his reputation is treading on potential more than performance. Though he’s only 25, Gonzalez’s renown is based on his past more than his present or future.

That’s not to say Gonzalez can’t again be great, but Jurgen Klinsmann needs to get some indication that it will happen. Else, he’s betting on memories. He’s betting the Omar Gonzalez we haven’t seen in over a year will emerge some time between now and June 16. And unfortunately for Goodson, that may create an unrealistic standard. Goodson not only has to out-play the current Gonzalez, he has to outplay the best Gonzalez possible – the one for whom Klinsmann seems to be holding out.

It’s the type of player I often hate writing about, one that feeds into whatever bias viewers want to carry. If you’re inclined to focus on the best parts of a defender’s game — evaluating players on their highlight reels and not their 90-minute contributions — Gonzalez can still look great. Thunderous clearances. Decisive reads. The commanding way he can take a man off the ball. When he’s Best Defender in the League Omar, it’s all there, painting a tantalizing picture of his potential.

But for defenders, mistakes matter. They really, incredibly matter. It’s part of the reason Germany’s Mats Hummels may be one of the most overrated players in the world. Like goalkeepers, defenders can’t just cancel out a key mistake with 89 minutes of good work. You can be great on the ball, spectacular on set pieces, have the strength to sack toss Hulk and the speed to chase down Ronaldo, but in the high leverage situations where defenders must perform, you can’t screw up. Defenders can’t consistently give up good chances.

source: Getty ImagesBetween now and Brazil

Consistency is Gonzalez’s main problem. Not game-to-game consistency, because he has been fairly predictable over the last season-plus. It’s minute-to-minute consistency that’s the issue, the type of varying performance that leads to a couple of nervy moments each match. As has been the case throughout his time under Klinsmann (with the possible exception of a small span last year), Gonzalez hasn’t been able to string together 90 mistake-free minutes with the national team.

Wednesday only reinforced that notion, but there’s still time. Between now and kickoff against Ghana, Gonzalez will have his opportunities to prove he’s more reliable. Perhaps he won’t start every game of the U.S.’s sendoff series, but he’s sure to start at least one. And given the faith Klinsmann’s shown in one of his first choice center backs, one good game may be enough. Gonzalez only needs to show that his past is still possible.

That’s why it’s too early to say Gonzalez played himself out of the lineup. Although the performance fit a larger pattern, Wednesday’s game will be insignificant once the team gets together in May. And there’s no question: Gonzalez will definitely be in Palo Alto, where he’ll have every chance to prove his hiccups are behind him.

Yes, the performance was worrisome, but it’s not going to redefine Gonzalez’s prospects for Brazil. May, however, will.

Ranieri laughs off England speculation with quip about bookmakers

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City speaks during a Leicester City press conference ahead of their Champions League match against FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 26, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

When it comes to quotes, Claudio Ranieri is one of the best.

The Leicester City manager was put on the spot after Tuesday’s 1-0 UEFA Champions League win over Porto, and handled it well.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Pulisic, BVB best Madrid ]

Asked about his name appearing on betting sites as a favorite to replace disgraced England boss Sam Allardycewho left the job Tuesday — Ranieri responded with a nod to Leicester’s long odds-defying Premier League title run.

Ranieri pleased as Leicester goes 2-0 in UCL: “We played with our spirit tonight”

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrate victory after the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Leicester City FC and FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Leicester City is now 2-0 in the UEFA Champions League after holding out to beat Porto 1-0 on Tuesday at King Power Stadium.

Combine that with their opening match blowout at Club Brugge, and the Foxes are flying. Contrary to many projections — including mine — the UEFA Champions League slate has only served to fire up, not wear out, the Foxes (at least in Europe. More on their Premier League problems below).

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Of course we should have learned to stop predicting struggles for Leicester. Even if Tuesday’s match did see the Foxes hanging on for dear life, they did that plenty of times in last season’s run to the Premier League title.

And this year the Foxes have Islam Slimani.

The striker has been a force in each game of his young Leicester career. Slimani has terrific chemistry with fellow Algerian Riyad Mahrez, and the ex-Sporting CP man has plenty of experience in Europe.

Both his manager and captain were pleased with Slimani, and the effort.

Here’s Wes Morgan, from the BBC:

“We know we’ve got to be resilient, especially at home. We had to dig in at the end there so it’s pleasing to get three points.

“Islam Slimani is a handful and he works hard for his goals so he deserves a lot of credit. Pleased for him tonight.”

And Ranieri:

“We suffered in the last 10 minutes but it was important to win. Concentration was high, we were resilient, I’m very happy. We played with our spirit tonight.”

Leicester City could be as good as onto the knockout rounds with a win in Copenhagen on Oct. 18, and have set themselves up well for the remaining matches.

Now, it’s onto Premier League improvement. The Foxes fell to Manchester United in a blowout this weekend, and have Saints, Chelsea, Palace, and Spurs next. That’s a very challenging slate for the PL’s 12th ranked club.

Champions League wrap: Spurs, Foxes collect wins; Juve wins big in Croatia

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Heung-Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between PFC CSKA Moskva and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Stadion CSKA Moskva on September 27, 2016 in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
2 Comments

The UEFA Champions League’s group stage hits its second round of matches Tuesday, with two Premier League teams in play and a bevy of big names from outside England.

Leicester won again, meaning the unlikely Premier League champions could all-but-clinch a spot in the knockout rounds if they beat Copenhagen in October.

[ MORE: Dempsey out for 2016 ]

Spurs also won to help make amends for losing at home to start the group stage while — surprise, surprise — USMNT star Christian Pulisic again was the super sub for Borussia Dortmund, making a big difference in a draw with Real Madrid.

Standings at bottom.

CSKA Moscow 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

There’s no shame in picking up a point so far from home, but a loss in the group stage opener but a little more weight on Spurs.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side bossed the play, but found themselves closed down atop the 18 by a stingy and aggressive CSKA Moscow side.

Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min were active, and it was the South Korean who found a break through in the 71st minute.

Played through on goal, Igor Akinfeev got a piece of Son’s right-footed rip only to see the ball crawl across the line. 1-0.

Dinamo Zagreb 0-4 Juventus

Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic scored first half goals for The Old Lady, who has had little trouble establishing itself in UCL this year. Paulo Dybala made it 3-0 in the 57th minute, as we had cruise control in Croatia.

Monaco 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez reportedly cost Bayer Leverkusen less than $10 million, and he’s been an absolute steal. Whatever was missing from his game at Manchester United and Real Madrid has been on full display for Bayer. Hernandez busted the match open with his sixth UCL goal in 11 appearances for the German side. Unfortunately for his side, Kamil Glik leveled things deep into stoppage time.

Leicester City 1-0 Porto

The chemistry between Algeria and now Leicester City teammates Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani is very real.

The former fed the latter for an opening goal on Tuesday in UEFA Champions League play at King Power Stadium, as the Foxes have opened up a 1-0 lead on Porto.

You can imagine the visitors aren’t too pleased with having to meet up with Slimani, who they just managed to see out of their league only to watch him arrive in their UCL group.

And how about the mad dabbing kid shown just after Slimani’s celebration? Wild nights in Leicester, as the Foxes held up to Porto’s second half pressure and went 2-for-2 in the group stage.

Borussia Dortmund 2-2 Real Madrid

Cristiano Ronaldo got on the scoresheet, though the hosts have been by far the more dangerous side. USMNT teenager Christian Pulisic is on the bench for BVB.

Thomas Tuchel’s side threatened to score through a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rocketed a shot just over the frame, and the Gabonese man made it 1-1 soon after when Keylor Navas punched Raphael Guerriero’s free kick off Raphael Varane. Aubameyang touched it over the line for an academic marker.

Varane, however, looked to have had the last laugh, poking in a go-ahead goal. That’s when USMNT star Christian Pulisic subbed on for Borussia Dortmund with 17 minutes to go and forced Navas into a save. Emre Mor then did the same.

Then, Pulisic beat his man on the right wing, sending a cross through traffic that Andre Schurrle collected and belted by Navas. 2-2.

Elsewhere

Sevilla 1-0 Lyon
Copenhagen 4-0 Club Brugge
Sporting CP 2-0 Legia Warsaw

Standings

Group E
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Monaco 2 1 1 0 3 2 1 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Tottenham Hotspur 2 1 0 1 2 2 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3
Bayer Leverkusen 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2
CSKA Moscow 2 0 1 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
Group F
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Real Madrid 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Borussia Dortmund 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sporting CP 2 1 0 1 3 2 1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Legia Warsaw 2 0 0 2 0 8 -8 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group G
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 2 2 0 0 4 0 4 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
FC Copenhagen 2 1 1 0 5 1 4 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
FC Porto 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Club Brugge 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group H
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Juventus 2 1 1 0 4 0 4 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sevilla 2 1 1 0 1 0 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Lyon 2 1 0 1 3 1 2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Dinamo Zagreb 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0

WATCH: Pulisic sends cross to Schurrle to equalize with Madrid

Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Dortmund's Christian Pulisic challenge for the ball during the Champions League group F soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in Dortmund, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
Leave a comment

Borussia Dortmund substitute and USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic subbed into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match versus Real Madrid and made a difference.

Given 17 minutes to work, Pulisic needed about 10. The 18-year-old American sent in a cross that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang couldn’t volley but fell to another BVB player.

[ MORE: Big Sam canned ]

That was Andre Schurrle, and the ex-Wolfsburg and Chelsea man lashed a shot behind Navas to make it 2-2 at the Westfalenstadion.

Pulisic does well here, real well, and had a chance to make it 2-2 himself that was smothered by Navas.