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.

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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.

Checking in with the Championship’s Premier League promotion hopefuls

HULL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: Jake Livermore of Hull City in action with Diego Fabbrini of Middlesbrough during the Sky Bet Championship match between Hull City and Middlesbrough at the KC Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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With roughly one-third of the schedule to play, there are four clubs within three points of automatic promotion to the Premier League and five more in or within shouting distance of the promotion playoffs.

So while we’re tracking the race to avoid PL relegation between Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich City and others, let’s take a look at who’s making bids to take their places.

[ MORE: Difficulty looms for in-form, relegation-scrapping Villa ]

Only one of last season’s relegated teams is far removed from the race to rejoin the Premier League, and that’s Queens Park Rangers. The R’s are 11 points back of sixth place, the final PL playoff spot.

Top dogs

Steve Bruce has Hull City in line for an instant return to the Premier League, but it’s far from sewn up. The Tigers have the Championship’s best goal differential (26), but are tied with Middlesbrough on points and just a point ahead of Sean Dyche‘s Burnley.

Also within a win of the Top Two is Brighton and Hove Albion, led by ex-Norwich City and Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton. He guided the Magpies to promotion, and also got Birmingham City to the playoff in 2012.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01:  Jonathan Spector of Birmingham City during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Birmingham City and Leicester City at St Andrews (stadium) on August 1, 2015 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Also in the running

Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday would be headed to the playoffs if the regular season ended today, but either could drop out of the six within a single game weekend.

Ipswich Town is in 7th with 48 points, while Birmingham is a point back. And remember Vincent Tan? Cardif City’s 45 points have them in the discussion for a PL return.

Of those teams, only one carries an American player. That’s USMNT defender Jonathan Spector (right), the former Manchester United and West Ham United man.

Zouma out for the season; USMNT’s Miazga amongst Chelsea options

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
ne Rooney of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (
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A major injury to a promising Chelsea center back could put an American in the driver’s seat for some surprising playing time.

[ MORE: Camp over, USMNT turns eyes to World Cup, Olympic qualifying ]

Kurt Zouma, 21, is out for at least a half-year after tearing his ACL, as the scary-looking injury suffered against Manchester United was as bad as it looked.

From ChelseaFC.com:

Chelsea Football Club’s medical team have diagnosed that Kurt Zouma sustained an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament during yesterday’s (Sunday) Premier League game against Manchester United.

Kurt will undergo surgery in the next 48 hours and is expected to be out for approximately six months.

Chelsea has Gary Cahill, John Terry and young USMNT center back Matt Miazga as center backs in the squad.

Center backs Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa), Tomas Kalas (Middlesbrough) and Michael Hector (Reading) are all on loan.

We will almost certainly see an extended look at Miazga at some point, as Chelsea still has the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League. How will the 20-year-old fare in England? We’re looking forward to finding out.

Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018

GRANADA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF competes for the ball with Youssef El-Arabi (L) of Granada CF during the La Liga match between Granada CF and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on February 7, 2016 in Granada, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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Cristiano Ronaldo gave his seemingly monthly statement on the future in Spanish outlet AS on Monday.

It’s nothing that’s going to surprise anyone, either, as the 31-year-old superstar committed himself to his contract at Real Madrid.

[ REPORT: Fernando Torres drawing interest from MLS, NASL ]

That contract ends in 2018, meaning he’s going roughly two-and-a-half more seasons at the Bernabeu.

From AS:

“I want to stay here two more years. The two years I’m talking about take me to the end of my contract,” he is quoted as saying by AS.

“And the future, we’ll see.”

Could he leave? Sure. The older he gets, the less he’ll command a transfer fee. Bastian Schweinsteiger left Bayern Munich at 31, and Ronaldo’s history with Real isn’t one-club stuff.

Premier League Playback: Five things we learned from a pivotal weekend

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LEICESTER CITY IS LEGIT

Perhaps the biggest lesson this weekend is something we’ve been ignoring for a while. Guys, Leicester City is legit. They are the favorites to win the Premier League title.

After rolling into the Etihad Stadium and dispatching title rivals Manchester City with ease on Saturday, Claudio Ranieri is refusing to admit the Foxes are the front-runners. Well, Claudio, you are. With a five-point lead at the top and a trip to Arsenal coming up next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) this is all getting rather serious.

Leicester isn’t doing anything they haven’t done all season long. They made the most of set pieces with Robert Huth scoring from two of them and Riyad Mahrez‘s superb goal sandwiched in-between Huth’s strikes personified the simplistic brilliance of Ranieri’s tactics. Winning the ball back in midfield, a quick ball out to N'Golo Kante saw him thread it to Mahrez 30-yards up field and the Algerian wizard danced his way past Nicolas Otamendi and gave Joe Hart the eyes. Direct and at the heart of Man City, Leicester’s tactics are tearing teams apart consistently and the most impressive thing about their recent performances is their defensive solidity.

Premier League Schedule – Week 25

Result Recap & Highlights
A. Villa 2-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
B’mouth 0-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Chelsea 1-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Liverpool 2-2 S’land Recap, watch here
Man City 1-3 Leicester Recap, watch here
Newcastle 1-0 WBA Recap, watch here
Saints 1-0 West Ham Recap, watch here
Stoke 0-3 Everton Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-1 C. Palace Recap, watch here
Tottenham 1-0 Watford Recap, watch here

Sure, they sat back a little deeper than they would’ve liked against Man City but they’re able to rely on clipping one long ball in-behind for Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki to collect. Vardy didn’t score on Saturday but Hart denied him twice when clean through and he rifled another into the side-netting. No matter, after the landmark win the leading scorer in the PL penned a new contract which ties him to Leicester until 2019.

Over the past four days Leicester has dispatched Liverpool 2-0 and Man City 3-1. Now, perhaps for the first time this season, everybody expects them to go to Arsenal and seal a remarkable win that could leave their biggest rivals for the title eight points in their wake. How the Foxes deal with this new pressure remains to be seen. They are no longer expected to fail. Everyone expects them to maintain this form and now clinch the title. Handling those expectations and staying focused will now be the biggest test yet for Ranieri’s remarkable squad. If they do hold on and clinch the title, there’s no doubt this will be the most surprising moment in PL history. And maybe soccer history.


MAN UNITED IMPROVING BUT TOP FOUR HOPES FADING

Louis Van Gaal reacted angrily when asked about speculation regarding his Manchester United future and if the teams improved performance will help his own cause.

The Dutchman, 64, has reason to be pleased with United’s offensive display at Chelsea as Jesse Lingard‘s magical turn, spin and strike had them 1-0 up heading into stoppage time. Then, Diego Costa struck and grabbed Chelsea a point to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 games since Jose Mourinho was fired.

The manner in which United conceded irritated Van Gaal as his side have slipped six points off the top four with just 13 games going.

“That’s why I am frustrated and my players are frustrated. When you are playing like we have played today and you are not making the gap smaller. You can say its misfortune but it’s not the first time that is overcoming us,” Van Gaal said. “For example Newcastle United scored in extra time. We have to do that better, improve in that way. I am happy with the performance. It was not a boring match so for the third time in the row it was sparkling. I hope to get the support of the media this week.”

Van Gaal’s offense, unlike it has for most of this season, looked sharp with Wayne Rooney going close three times and Thibaut Courtois denying the brilliant Anthony Martial and Lingard but it was the same old story. United don’t score enough goals to be able to make these defensive mistakes and still grab three points. They need to buck this trend, and fast, if their fading top four hopes are to become reality.


NORTH LONDON RISING

So, we’ve spoken about Leicester. Now, let’s look at the two teams chasing them: Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, Man City is still in the mix in fourth place on 47 points but the north London duo of Arsenal and Spurs are, right now, seeming to be the firm challengers to the Foxes. Both sit on 48 points and both won this weekend.

Following their 1-0 win over Watford on Saturday, Spurs’ manager Mauricio Pochettino tried his best to curb enthusiasm around White Hart Lane but talk of a title race with Arsenal is in the air.

“I believe in my players, I believe in my squad. We will see. It is difficult to guess what will happen in the future,” Pochettino said. “In football belief is the most important word. If we believe, anything can happen. I believe in my squad and they believe too in the way we play. This synergy is very important for the future. You can see in their eyes, the feeling, the energy that they believe. But it is better not to speak too much, only show, work hard.”

Arsenal beat Bournemouth 2-0, their first victory in five PL games, and the Gunners are now back on track ahead of Leicester’s visit to the Emirates next Sunday. A win in that game is a must if both Arsenal and Spurs are to claw back ground on the Foxes. Another game which could be even bigger in the run-in is March 5 at White Hart Lane. Spurs host Arsenal in just under a month and by then it could be a straight two-horse race between the bitter rivals for the Premier League title.

As for the bigger picture, both Spurs and Arsenal are still in Europe and the FA Cup which could complicate their title charge. Arsenal, in particular, face a pivotal 10-day period in February which will define their season. The fixture list reads: Feb. 14, Leicester at home in the Premier League. Feb. 20, Hull at home in the FA Cup. Feb. 23, Barcelona at home in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg. Arsene Wenger‘s men usually hit full stride in the final months of the season but usually their situation is much worse than this. Let’s see if the perennial kick-starters can stretch their legs and stride to success in multiple competitions but, most importantly, beat their north London rivals to the PL title.


HOPE AT THE BOTTOM

Aston Villa’s survival hopes were kick-started this weekend as a Gabriel Agbonlahor inspired Villa beat relegation rivals Norwich City 2-0 at Villa Park for just their third victory in 25 outings this season. Remi Garde’s men are giving themselves a slim chance of making the greatest of great escapes. With 13 games to go the Midlands giant is eight points from safety and need to win games, fast. They have a tough set of fixtures on the horizon but at least they now look solid and steady at the back with Mark Bunn putting in another good display in goal and a settled back four shutting down a lackluster Norwich. The Canaries actually slipped into the bottom three after this defeat, their fifth-straight loss, and Alex Neil has a crisis on his hands.

The reason Norwich slipped into the relegation zone is because Newcastle United climbed out with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win at home against West Brom. It should have been three or four nil to Newcastle but Steve McClaren will be delighted his new signings — particularly Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend — have slotted in seamlessly. The Magpies have some easier games, on paper, coming up and a few more wins should drag them further clear from the drop zone. As for Tony Pulis‘ side, the Baggies are wobbling and are without a win in five as they continue to slide towards the bottom three. Each season there’s always one team which seems to slip towards the relegation abyss…


SAINTS, TOFFEES LIMBERING UP

Two teams heading on the way up are Southampton and Everton. Both teams harbored hopes of breaking into the top six ahead of the season and after difficult starts they have found their feet. No, that isn’t a direct reference to Roberto Martinez’s awesome Jason Derulo-inspired dance moves but as far as I’m concerned the clip below can’t be shown enough.

Martinez would have been left dancing for joy on the touchline on Saturday as his team raced into a 3-0 half time lead at Stoke City. The Potters’ defense was ripped open by incisive midfield running from the Toffees and Martinez resisted the urge to break out his inner Derulo. For now. “I thought about dancing,” Martinez said afterwards. “But I thought it was difficult to beat the moves the boys showed on the pitch.” Indeed. Everton is now up to eighth with two wins on the spin and just one defeat in their last six.

The team directly above them is Southampton who have enjoyed a superb last few weeks. Since goalkeeper Fraser Forster returned from a nine-month spell out injured they’ve won four out of five games, kept clean sheets in all five and Ronald Koeman was named Premier League Manager of the Month for January. On Saturday Saints ground out a 1-0 win at home against fellow top six hopefuls West Ham to drag themselves to within two points of the Hammer who sit one place above them in sixth spot in the table.

Southampton’s grit and determination to hold onto a 1-0 lead against West Ham after going down to 10-men with 40 minutes of the game left was remarkable. Victor Wanyama — who will now serve a five-game ban after picking up his third red card of the season — lunged in stupidly on Dmitri Payet and even though some may have not seen it as a straight-red, the Kenyan midfielder gave referee Mark Clattenburg the chance to send him off. Saints overcame that setback and in their next four encounters have some very winnable games. Both Southampton and Everton are back on track and challenging for the top six.


BONUS: Southampton are also launching an initiative to develop better coaches and players in North America. Find out what that’s all about in this exclusive piece as I went down to the South Coast last week to discuss their plans to muscle into the American soccer scene.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here