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After donning Darth Vader outfit, Gonzalez becomes force

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Omar Gonzalez had just left the LA Galaxy to join Mexico’s Pachuca when his new club’s chairman had a request: Would the 6-foot-5 defender walk into his introductory news conference dressed as Darth Vader?

Of course, he obliged. Ever since, he has become a defensive force.

“I had signed a contract 15 minutes prior to that, so I was like, `Yeah, sure.’ It was a bit small,” Gonzalez recalled of the costume Tuesday. “I don’t know if they met any other Mexican my size.”

Now 28 years old, Gonzalez is among the U.S. players trying to impress returning coach Bruce Arena in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Americans play El Salvador on Wednesday night in a quarterfinal match.

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He made his national team debut in August 2010 during an exhibition against Brazil, which gave a teenage forward named Neymar his first international appearance that night in New Jersey.

Gonzalez went on to become among Major League Soccer’s highest-paid players, but his career stalled: first a torn knee ligament during his initial training session following a January 2012 loan to the German club Nuremberg, then a knee injury that kept him from starting the first two games of the 2014 World Cup.

But worst of all was malaise during his final seasons with the Galaxy.

“I was just doing enough to get by and things were OK,” he said.

Gonzalez decided to change his attitude and alter his rest regimen. He signed with Pachuca in December 2015, helped that team win last year’s Clausura title – and now he is flourishing on a team that will be in this year’s Club World Cup.

“Everyone said this is the next so-and-so. And that’s all well and good, but until you get out there and prove it,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard explained.

“He’s matured. When you have ability and other people think you have ability, it’s great. When you actually realize your own ability and potential, I think the game slows down for you a little bit and you get very comfortable with your own movements and your own communication.”

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Born in Dallas to Mexican-American parents, Gonzalez could have played for either country. An All-American at Maryland, he was the third pick overall in the 2009 MLS draft and then that season was voted MLS Rookie of the Year with the Galaxy, all while being coached by Arena.

During the defender’s time in LA., Gonzalez met Erica, the woman he would marry, at the 30th birthday party of Kenny Arena, now as assistant coach for his dad.

Gonzalez lived in Manhattan Beach but decided to shake up his life with the move to Pachuca, a city of about 265,000, where he now lives with Erica and their two daughters, 2+-year-old Isla and 1-year-old Colette.

“It’s just a totally different lifestyle,” he said. “In LA, you’re done with training and you sit around and you think, what should I do today? There’s always something, to do, and Pachuca there’s not really much to do.”

The family makes the hour-long drive to Costco outside Mexico City to fill the SUV with groceries and supplies. He is careful to check the calendar to avoid shopping on the middle and final days of each month.

“You don’t go to the mall when it’s pay day. When people get paid, it’s packed,” he said.

He is convinced he would not have revived his career had he not decided to leave Los Angeles.

“It’s definitely made me a better player and also made me a better person, living in a different culture, living in a different country, living in an environment you’re not used to,” Gonzalez said.

[ MORE: USMNT – El Salvador preview ]

“I spent my whole career in LA before I made this move, under the same coach, and so things were very comfortable for me, I would say. And what Mexico did was put me in an uncomfortable position, and I went to a place where I was unsure of myself playing every single game, and Mexico I believe is still ahead of MLS in terms of the quality and the players’ technical ability.”

Back with the national team, Gonzalez is competing for what likely will be four center back spots on the U.S. World Cup roster, assuming the Americans qualify.

John Brooks and Geoff Cameron top the depth chart at the moment, with Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Matt Miazga and Matt Hedges the four splitting time at the Gold Cup. Gonzalez put the U.S. ahead in last week’s 2-0 win over Martinique with his second goal in 42 international appearances.

“Moving to Pachuca has allowed him to focus a little bit more on his craft. I don’t think he has the distractions he might have had in Los Angeles,” Arena said,

Gonzalez’s teammates have noticed his strides.

“Your way of dealing with quick, skillful attacking players is put to the test every week,” captain Michael Bradley said. “It’s a guy who continues to show that he has to play a role for us moving forward.”

NUMBERS GAME

Additions to Gold Cup rosters for the knockout rounds must wear numbers 24-29, resulting in some unusual assignments. Forward Clint Dempsey is 28, a combination of his club No. 2 and his national team No. 8. Bradley is 26, because 6 minus 2 equals his usual number 4. Instead of No. 1, Howard is wearing No. 24, his old digits at Everton. Forward Jozy Altidore is 27 instead of 17.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 7 — Spain, Portugal aim for wins

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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Spain and Portugal got through the toughest match on their Group B dockets, against each other, but now need to stack some W’s.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s EURO champs open Wednesday’s World Cup action with a match against Morocco, and manager Fernando Hierro leads Spain against Iran to close out the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

In the middle, Uruguay looks to suck the drama out of Group A by joining Russia as 2-0 sides.

Below is Wednesday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group A
Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia: Rostov, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group B
Portugal vs. Morocco: Moscow, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Iran vs. Spain: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Fortunes up or down? 32 thoughts after first 17 World Cup games

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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All it took was one round of games for some favorites to be doubted, others to verify their status, and some underdogs to earn dark horse status.

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While there are valid reasons to make early judgments, it’s important to note that some perceived setbacks don’t change much while others put a serious crimp in tournament hopes.

Group A

Russia (2 games played) — Fortunes way up — Two resounding wins combined with early tumult in Group B could help Russia consider a quarterfinal spot.

Uruguay — Fortunes level — Jose Gimenez’s 89th minute winner may allow the CONMEBOL side to render its group finale moot by hammering Saudi Arabia.

Egypt (2 games played) — Fortunes way down — Could be out of the tournament should Uruguay get a point against lowly Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia — Fortunes down — Unsure anyone figured the Green Falcons as anything other than an obstacle, but their performance against host Russia was miserable.

Group B

Iran — Fortunes up — Carlos Queiroz would’ve circled the Morocco opener as a must-win. Mission accomplished, however it was done.

Portugal — Fortunes level — Needed a PK, goalie error, and wonder free kick to get a point from Spain. Still, got the point.

Spain — Fortunes down — Still look capable of imposing themselves on the tournament, but too many errors in their first outing.

Morocco — Fortunes down — Probably should’ve had a point against Iran, but would’ve wanted three anyway. Very disappointing and now a mountain ahead.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 15: Karim Ansarifard of Iran is challenged by Noureddine Amrabat of Morocco (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Group C

France — Fortunes level — Clearly the better side against Australia, didn’t inspire title confidence but could’ve easily nabbed a three- or four-goal win.

Denmark — Fortunes up — Despite being the second-best side against Peru, now can expect the knockout rounds by beating the Socceroos.

Australia — Fortunes down — France first was always going to be a struggle, but to fight so valiantly and fall to an own goal will be a mental hurdle ahead of Peru.

Peru — Fortunes down — Terrific energy and performance would’ve led to a win with any finishing luck, but getting a result from Denmark was very important. A loss presents a major challenge.

Group D

Croatia — Fortunes up — Its tactical options for the second match against Argentina are wide open after securing three points against Nigeria.

Argentina — Fortunes down — Forget control of the game and Lionel Messi’s 11 shots on target; Not getting full points against Iceland is a significant setback. A group stage without Messi is possible.

Iceland — Fortunes up — It remains hard to picture Iceland getting out of the group, but the UEFA side has now flummoxed Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in successive tournaments. Can they find a win against Nigeria to set up a wild final day?

Nigeria — Fortunes down — Group D was always going to be tough, but a 2-0 loss to Croatia means the margin of error is almost zero.

Group E

Serbia — Fortunes up — Forget how Serbia won, their fortunes have leapt due to Brazil drawing Switzerland.

Brazil — Fortunes down — Drawing their second-trickiest game could see Neymar and Co. in position to finish second in the group instead of first. The only silver lining is that Germany may also fail to claim its group and make runner-up a good thing for the Round of 16.

Switzerland — Fortunes up — Maybe Swiss supporters were expecting it, but a result against Brazil is a positive step for a team that took Argentina to extra time at the 2014 tournament but underwhelmed at EURO 2016.

Costa Rica — Fortunes down — Now needs to beat Brazil to have much hope of anything going into the final group match vs. Switzerland.

Group F

Sweden  — Fortunes level — Beating South Korea was nice and we understand the chemistry argument, but a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic would’ve feasted on the spoils offered in the opener.

Mexico  — Fortunes way up — El Tri is a very good tournament team, but if you had them beating Germany 1-0 in the opener you’re a better prognosticator than me.

Germany  — Fortunes down — Still favored to come out of the group and deep enough to repeat as champions, being unable to get a result from Mexico will only raise more questions about leaving Leroy Sane home (fair or not).

South Korea — Fortunes down — Would’ve wanted no less than four points from the Sweden and Mexico encounters, and has zero heading into the second against El Tri.

NIZHNIY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA – JUNE 18: Andreas Granqvist of Sweden. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Group G

Belgium  — Fortunes up — Delivered expected dominance against Panama and could have a spot in the knockout rounds sewn up by the end of Day Two versus Tunisia.

England  — Fortunes up — There will not be Wayne Rooney questions about this tournament’s captain, as Harry Kane scored twice on a day he perhaps wasn’t at his best. Will clinch a berth in the knockout rounds by beating Panama next, you’d have to think.

Tunisia  — Fortunes slightly down — Needed to surprise England or Belgium to get out of the group, and still has a second opportunity after losing late to the Three Lions.

Panama  — Fortunes slightly down — Not sure anyone was expecting a Cinderella story, but even those will feel it more unlikely after a big loss to Belgium.

Group H

Japan  — Fortunes up — Not a bad team at all, but prospects were dim given the talent of the group. After beating Colombia in match one, there’s a house money feel to this one.

Senegal  — Fortunes up — Controversy aside, the Lions of Teranga deserved all three points against Poland and are in pole position to win the group.

Poland  — Fortunes down — Disappointing is an understatement leading into a match versus Colombia which could leave both on the outskirts with a match to go.

Colombia  — Fortunes down — Carlos Sanchez’s third minute red card didn’t ultimately doom them, but the task is tall with equally desperate Poland up next.

Arsenal seals transfer of German goalkeeper Leno

Arsenal.com
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Arsenal unveiled German goalkeeper Bernd Leno on Tuesday as the latest member of Unai Emery’s unit.

The longtime Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper, 26, has six caps for Germany but is not on the World Cup roster.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Leno had appeared in 304 matches for Bayer before the move, which will reportedly cost the Gunners approximately $25 million.

Head coach Unai Emery said: “We are very pleased that Bernd Leno will be joining us. Bernd is a goalkeeper of high quality and experience. He has been a top performer and regular number one goalkeeper with Leverkusen in the Bundesliga for the past seven years. We are all excited that Bernd has chosen Arsenal Football Club and look forward to start working with him in pre-season.”

The Gunners have Petr Cech and David Ospina at goalkeeper, but it’s reasonable to expect at least one to leave town. Emery has already added Stephan Lichtsteiner from Juventus to help shore up his defense.

Clinical Russia tops Egypt to (pretty much) reach knockout rounds

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  • Russia goals: Fathy o.g. (48′), Cheryshev (59′), Dzyuba (62′)
  • Egypt: Salah (PK, 73′)
  • Next: Russia-Uruguay, Egypt-Saudi Arabia

Hosts Russia scored a trio of second half goals to all but seal the first spot in the 2018 World Cup’s Round of 16 with a 3-1 win over Egypt on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.

The loss means Egypt is 0-2, the Pharoahs unable to find momentum despite the return of Mohamed Salah. Egypt needs a wild combination of factors to stay alive for the knockout rounds, and is likely heading home.

Salah won and converted a penalty for Egypt, while Denis Cheryshev, Artem Dzyuba, and an Egyptian own goal accounted for Russia’s goals.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Some sloppy play out of the back allowed Golovin a shot from outside the 18 but he hit his effort wide of the frame.

Egypt stayed in the mix though, and a Russian mistake  deep in its own end forced Zhirkov to concede a corner with a desperation intervention that stopped Mo Salah from a doorstep opportunity.

Salah then won a yard of space but fired wide in the 42nd minute after Zhirkov stopped him from going to his right peg.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Russia went ahead through an Egypt own goal from Fathy, who was jostling for position with Artem Dzyuba and turned Roman Zobnin’s mishit inside his net.

After Cheryshev made it 2-0, Dzyuba took an Ilya Kutepov long ball out of the air with his chest before turning past Ahmed Hegazy and blasting Russia’s third goal home.

Salah won a penalty in the 73rd minute, one initially ruled a free kick, and the Liverpool man blasted his shot home.