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Direct from Arizona

It's Officially Time to Worry About Omar Gonzalez

The Los Angeles Galaxy center back has been the United States national team's starter for months. After a shocker against Mexico, is it time to re-evaluate that stance?

BY Noah Davis Posted
April 03, 2014
11:36 AM
GLENDALE, Ariz.—A defender's hand raised in the pursuit of an offside call that isn't coming is never a good sign.

On a night when we saw the present of the United States national team in Michael Bradley, who somehow proved he's even more indispensable to the Americans in a 2-2 draw against Mexico, and the future in Julian Green who made his debut, the most telling single shot might have been one raised hand.

Specifically, the right one Omar Gonzalez put into the air after Alan Pulido scored to tie the match in the 67th minute. The Los Angeles Galaxy center back lost his man, instead watching the ball as Paul Aguilar's shot rang off the post and bounced to Pulido. It was a concerning lack of concentration from the man who has been one of the first choice center backs for Jurgen Klinsmann's squad.

You could see the goal coming. Watch Matt Besler repeatedly point Pulido out, encouraging Gonzalez to mark the Mexican attacker. He doesn't, Pulido scores, and the slow trickle of concern about Gonzalez's momentary lapses becomes a river.

In typical fashion, Klinsmann admitted mistakes were made but stayed positive. "It's normal that they struggle a bit now," he said in a post-match press conference. "They barely started the season. They have two, three games in the season. Mexico is far ahead of us in terms of rhythm. We are patient in the process."

"In two months from now, I will make the decision who's going to be the ideal pairing of the two center backs."

Two questions: Will Gonzalez be a starter? And should he?

The benefits the center back brings are obvious. He's big and strong in the air when he stays with his man—more on that in a bit. Gonzalez can be dangerous in the attack on set pieces. He very nearly scored on a header moments before Michael Bradley put the U.S. ahead 1-0, and it was Gonzalez's effort that won the corner kick the midfielder converted. He continues to get better with his feet and looked comfortable playing away from El Tri's high pressure.

"It's night and day from the first time they came in," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said of the confidence he sees Gonzalez and Besler bring into camp and the games.

All good qualities for sure.

But Gonzalez made two mistakes, two mistakes that led to goals. The one against Pulido but also in the 49th minute, losing Rafa Marquez on a corner kick and allowing the Mexican captain a free header that he easily put into the American net. After the match, Gonzalez pointed out that faux pas on his own.

"I think that overall I did pretty well," he said. "It was just that one corner. I'm just happy that it's during this friendly, and it's something that I've got to keep on working on. Just something that, I've got to be a bastard in there. The only tough part is that you don't want to be too handsy because then you get called for the PK and it's a little bit tough to manage."

The optimist would credit Gonzalez from trying to learn from his miscues. It was only a friendly and his progress was impeded by another Mexican attacker. But this type of play has happened before. If you're coaching Ghana, Portugal, or Germany, don't you specifically attack Gonzalez on corner kicks and other dead-ball situations? Make him run through bodies, knowing he has trouble, that he's not quite the "bastard" he needs to be? I certainly would.

Combine that struggle with the Pulido debacle, the ballwatching we see Gonzalez do all too frequently, and you really gotta wonder if he's ready to start in Brazil. While Goodson might not have the same top end, he's less likely to make a mistake that leads directly to a goal (to say nothing of Geoff Cameron). In Brazil, where the U.S.'s chances to advance might come down to a single goal, that's too important a factor to overlook.

After the match, Klinsmann was asked about the competition for center back. "Naturally, it's open," he said. "How much it's difficult to say." But certainly more so than it was a month or two ago.

Gonzalez, more than any other player, needs to learn to play complete games. It's the job of a center back, the men on the field who can play perfectly for 89 minutes, then slip up for one and become the goat. Fair? No. True? Yes.

On Wednesday night, the U.S. didn't put in an entire game. Klinsmann noted this as well while speaking post-match.

"We don't have those 90 minutes yet," he said. "We have maybe 55 or 60 maximum on that level. It's not enough. It means we have a lot of homework to do going into preparation. Hopefully they can do more homework with their club sides."

He could have been talking directly to Gonzalez. For him to start in Brazil, he needs to prove he can stay present and focused for 90 minutes. Not 55 or 60 or 89. An hour and a half.

He has a month to hit the books and a World Cup spot on the line.

Noah Davis is ASN's deputy editor. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.

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