11513_gonzalezomar_isi_mlsdb09182010111 David Bernal/isiphotos.com
Godfrey's Column

Can Omar Raise His Game to the International Level?

With the U.S. back line in disarray and the Hexagonal fast approaching, Omar Gonzalez is perfectly positioned to claim, and retain, a roster spot. John Godfrey spoke to Alexi Lalas about this opportunity.
BY John Godfrey Posted
January 15, 2013
9:16 AM
Omar Gonzalez is a bit of a conundrum.

The six-foot-five, 24-year-old central defender is blessed with physical tools and vast potential. He has won championships both at the college level with the University of Maryland and on the professional stage with the Los Angeles Galaxy. His teams win trophies. He wins personal accolades. Everything he touches, it seems, turns to gold.

And yet Gonzalez has made just two appearances for the U.S. national team, and none since a 45-minute appearance against Chile nearly two years ago. Part of this inactivity is due to a knee injury Gonzalez suffered in 2012, but the rest is hard to figure. Maturity? Consistency? Coaches' decisions?

Whatever the reasons might be, Gonzalez is now training with the full national team in preparation for the January 29 friendly against Canada, and his prospects for securing substantial playing time have never been brighter.

Carlos Bocanegra is 33 years old and plays in the Spanish second division. The last time we saw him wearing the Stars and Stripes he hobbled off the field with an injury against Russia.

Clarence Goodson, 30, did not have a great year on the international level.

Oguchi Onyewu, also 30, has struggled to find consistency and playing time for both club and country.

Is this Omar Gonzalez’s big opportunity to establish himself in the middle of the American defense? It certainly seems that way. To help explore this topic, we spoke to somebody who knows what it takes to succeed at the international level—former U.S. national team central defender Alexi Lalas. Now a soccer analyst for ESPN, Lalas has 96 caps to his name and plenty to say on the topic of Omar Gonzalez.

John Godfrey: Does Omar Gonzalez have a legitimate shot at an ongoing starting XI spot for the U.S. men’s national team?

Alexi Lalas: One hundred percent yes. He has an absolute golden opportunity. The timing is right because the defense has been a position of concern for a while now. It’s also an area that’s in a constant state of change. And I think Omar should realize that Jurgen believes in him and wants him to grab ahold of this opportunity. Jurgen’s not just going to give it over to Omar. He will have to earn it. But a big part of being a professional athlete is timing. It couldn’t be a more perfect time for Omar Gonzalez to come in and stake his claim.

Godfrey: A lot of soccer people, myself included, believe Gonzalez is destined for this role. Are we being too presumptuous?

Lalas: We should temper it a little bit. There is a feeling in the soccer community that we’re all dying to have this happen, but it shouldn’t be forced. It just makes so much sense and it’s so logical, but until we see him on that international stage consistently, we’re not going to know if all that good stuff about him translates.

Godfrey: You didn’t face the same sort of leap.

Lalas: I went about it backward. When I appeared in the World Cup in the summer of 1994 I had never been in a professional environment and had never been through a professional season the way Omar has. I was a seasoned international before I was a seasoned club player. It’s a completely backward way, but it was just the circumstances at the time.

When you play internationally, the amount of time you spend with the team is very limited and the number of games you play are very limited, so everything takes on a heightened sense of importance. And the ramifications of both good and bad performances are elevated. The pressure and the attention are all ratcheted up.

We all know that part of being a center back is concentrating for 90 minutes, and if you let up for 10 seconds that can be the difference in the game. That’s the nature of the position, but at the international level it’s even more so—especially because the level of the competition. All they need is one opportunity. And because of the parity in international soccer, sometimes that one opportunity can be the difference.

Godfrey: Carlos Bocanegra has been a wonderful servant for his country for a very long time, but what do you think about the potential of a Geoff Cameron/Omar Gonzalez partnership in central defense?

Lalas: It’s a good combo in that it plays a little bit more into what Jurgen Klinsmann intends to do in terms of possession and in terms of playing out of the back. I don’t think that there’s much of a change when it comes to the worries we have about speed, and getting beat by speed. But the leadership qualities and the left foot that Carlos has are assets that will be difficult to replace. It will be a very different type of back four with those two, but I think it could be not only as effective but even more so given the circumstances of this team.

Godfrey: Some soccer analysts seem to think that Gonzalez is too slow and/or a poor passer. What are your thoughts on that?

Lalas: I think he’s better with the ball than people give him credit for, and I also think that within the span of a year he has gotten better. Whether that is a function of him being out with an injury and getting to see the game from a different perspective and incorporating that into how he plays, or just a natural progression, I don’t know. But he has come back from the injury a more complete player, and he has shown the ability to play out of the back.

Now he’s not Franco Baresi and he never will be. But when you see a guy like Lucio…. I can see Gonzalez developing [in a similar way]. Big guys with confidence. It requires a certain level of skill and ability and requires him to not put himself in a position where he has to dribble out of the back.

And when it comes to the stuff he is good at, he better be the best. If Omar is getting beat in the air, that would be really troublesome. If he’s not winning those physical battles as he goes against guys who are not only good in the air but also able to bang with him up top, that would be a problem. That’s his bread and butter.

Godfrey: I see Gonzalez as a younger version of Fulham’s Brede Hangeland. Tall, obviously. Great in the air. And both are adept at breaking up linkup passes coming out of the opposing backfield. Do you buy that comparison?

Lalas: Yeah. Defending is about cutting things off at the pass and not putting yourself into bad situations. Omar has developed that ability—without a doubt.

Godfrey: You talk about set pieces quite a bit. Almost as much as you talk about Ratt.

Lalas: About the same amount, yeah.

Godfrey: The U.S. national team struggled on set pieces in 2012, giving up three goals on set pieces in World Cup qualifiers that cost them five points. How can Gonzalez help with set pieces?

Lalas: Both in terms of getting the ball out and on the offensive side of things, I think there’s a greater advantage to having Omar Gonazelez in the box than Carlos Bocanegra. I’d like to have them both in the box to be perfectly honest with you, because I don’t think Geoff Cameron is somebody we’re going to look for consistently in the box.

But having somebody like Omar there will free up other people. Even though he is on some level an unknown and a younger player, just from a visual standpoint opposing players know they’re going to have get ahold of him when he comes up into the box. And even if they’re able to get up with him and even if he doesn’t score a goal, Omar’s ability to knock things down and keep the play in motion is a huge, huge asset. Jurgen is going to be able to plan for ways to get Omar the ball.

Godfrey: Thanks for your thoughts. See you in Mexico City.

Lalas: You got it.

What are your thoughts on Gonzalez? Do you think he will earn a spot as a first-team starter as the Hexagonal begins? Please share your thoughts below.

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