Gonzalez

LA Galaxy to unveil third Designated Player on Thursday: Will it be Omar Gonzalez?

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The two-time defending champions will make it official tomorrow, and if previous reports are any indication, the announcement will be more reassuring than surprising. After having the likes to Kaká, Frank Lampard, and Giovani Dos Santos linked with their third Designated Player position, the LA Galaxy are expected to announce a contract extension for former MLS Defender of the Year and reigning MLS Cup Final MVP Omar Gonzalez, a deal that will claim that final cap-defying spot.

To be clear: The Galaxy made no mention of Omar in their release on Wednesday, an advisory that noted their third Designated Player will be unveiled at noon Pacific on Thursday. And given the timing in the calendar and the stature of the club in question, it’s no Gonzalez will be the man who stands at the podium.

However, if you’re betting against the big U.S. international being announced tomorrow, you’ve either got a guy on the inside or have a dangerously low regard for your money. Gonzalez is the big favorite here.

We talked about Gonzalez’s Designated Player potential before. It’s an intriguing debate. To what extent do defenders justify these scarce DP spots? And is Gonzalez one of those players? Does the fact that he plays for the Galaxy — a team with more stars on their radar than any other MLS team — chance how you evaluate their potential re-signing of Gonzalez?

Tomorrow we’ll find out if those questions become more than hypotheticals.

 

Mistakes mean progress for emerging Omar Gonzalez

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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.”

Mexico vs. United States Man of the Match: Omar Gonzalez

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The conversation usually centers around Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and when he’s available, Landon Donovan. Tim Howard also gets his due, but when discussion shifts the U.S. Men’s National Team’s best player, Omar Gonzalez’s name has never come up.

And that makes sense. Before tonight, he would have been seen as too inexperienced (five caps), too young (24), or just lacking the kind of international resume to sustain a place in the debate. He’s just recently become a first choice player in Jurgen Klinsmann’s XI. How can he be compared to Dempsey and Bradley?

But after Tuesday night’s performance against Mexico, you can you see a future where Omar Gonzalez is the U.S.’s best player. Because if he’s not the best player in the pool right now, he’s quickly becoming the most important.

(MORE: United States get big draw in Mexico)

Leading his team to a clean sheet at Azteca, Gonzalez gave a performance reminiscent of last December’s MLS Cup final. In Carson, Gonzalez dominated at the back and headed home the opening goal while leading the LA Galaxy to Major League Soccer’s crown.

He didn’t quite replicate that impact on Tuesday, but against a much higher level of competition, his contributions were just as notable.

As his fellow defenders Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, and DeMarcus Beasley struggled through the first half hour, Gonzalez was there to bail them out, sweeping up as his teammates left space for Mexico to exploit. As the U.S. adjusted, Gonzalez was able to be even more decisive, providing decisive clearances both on the ground and in the air. With Mexico able to put in 20 crosses (to the U.S.’s eight), Gonzalez’s aerial prowess and role as the defense’s anchor was constantly tested.

Seven clearances, five recoveries, four interceptions, and a blocked shots – these are the stats that describe the individual performance. The main contribution, however, was seen on the scoreboard.

(MORE: Big result took a little luck)

To keep a clean sheet at Azteca, it was going to take some a great performance. As a team, the U.S.’s defense met that standard. As an individual? Gonzalez stood out.

Going forward, it remains to be seen how much this changes our perception of Gonzalez. Same with Brad Guzan. Same with Matt Besler, who looked strong over the last hour. Standout performances with the highest stakes tend to stick out in people’s minds.

For Gonzalez, he is already recognized as the best defender in Major League Soccer. He’s already become the only defender to win MVP at an MLS Cup final. His value to the star-laden Galaxy was proven during last season’s absence, and during his most recent time with the national team, he’s shown how much he’s progressed from the young, limited player who was exploited in his first international minutes.

(MORE: Time for Mexico to deal with their own crisis)

Omar Gonzalez is clearly no longer the player he once was. He may be the best defender Major League Soccer’s ever produced, and after Tuesday’s performance, we know he’s the most important defender in the pool.

The lingering question, after a dominant performance in the biggest match of his career: How good is he? It’s too early to say for sure, but if he’s capable of replicating tonight’s performance, then he’s the best the U.S. has got. Not best defender – best player.

PST MLS Cup 2012 Man of the Match: Omar Gonzalez

2012 MLS Cup - Houston Dynamo v Los Angeles Galaxy
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CARSON, Calif. – Completing a season where his absence left no question how valuable he was to a team defined by it’s top-line stars, defender Omar Gonzalez was ever-present for the LA Galaxy on Saturday. Kept out of the team until summer while recovering from an offseason knee injury, the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year transcended his position, scoring the Galaxy’s first goal before providing a vital contribution toward the game-winner. Dominant in the air at the back while providing a series of late, crucial clearances that protected his keeper, Gonzalez completed his 2012 comeback with a Man of the Match performance in Saturday’s MLS Cup final.

MORE: What we learned from LA’s 3-1 win over Houston

That it was Gonzalez – not goalscorers Landon Donovan or Robbie Keane, or the retiring megastar David Beckham – who stole the stage should surprise nobody. That he did it in the opponent’s penalty area as opposed to his own was the shock.

In the 60th minute, with his team having conceded an opener just before halftime, Gonzalez found himself unmarked at the left post eight yards from goal, Juninho having taken a touch before lining up a cross to LA’s most dangerous aerial threat. As he elevated for the outswinging ball, right back Kofie Sarkodie tried to backpedal out an contest the cros. The second-year right back proved out of his league against the 6’5″ center half. Gonzalez hammered the ball back across goal, just inside Tally Hall’s far post to make it 1-1.

Though LA’s second came from the spot, it was another Gonzalez header that started the penalty-drawing play. On a chipped in ball from David Beckham, Gonzalez cut in front of Hall to win the ball, knocking it down to start a series of events ending in a Ricardo Clark hand ball. When Landon Donovan slotted home the ensuing kick, LA had the lead they’d never relinquish.

In defense, Gonzalez’s brilliance existed in persistence, not highlights. Though he was the man that kept Calen Carr onside ahead of Houston’s only goal, the rest of his game was impeccable. In the first half, he helped LA withstand Houston’s early change with perfect positioning ahead of the crosses he would eventually defuse. In the second, his early aggression stepping into midfield set an the intense tone that spurred LA to three-goal half. At match’s end, his recovery on balls played behind the line kept Josh Saunders’ save total at a modest five.

Fifteen clearances. Eleven interceptions. Six headers won. They’re numbers that will be overshadowed by his opening goal, but ultimately, the defensive contributions were worth more.

In the process, Gonzalez reaffirmed his place as the league’s best defender nine months after his knee injury temporarily relinquished the title. No other player in the league is as capable of such a dominating, all-around performance from defense. For it, Gonzalez was rightly recognized as the 2012 MLS Cup Man of the Match.