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.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.