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Player Spotlight

Omar Gonzalez Plays Big in His First World Cup Start

The 25-year-old Dallas native started ahead of Geoff Cameron in the U.S. national team's 1-0 loss to Germany to close out Group G play. Despite the result, the six-foot-five defender played brilliantly.

BY John Godfrey Posted
June 26, 2014
5:50 PM
RECIFE, Brazil—Twelve months ago, Omar Gonzalez was a first-team, sure-thing, no-doubt-about-it starting central defender for the United States men's soccer team.

The Dallas native moved into the role in February 2013, beating out then-captain Carlos Bocanegra for a starting spot against Honduras in San Pedro Sula. But a funny thing happened on the way to Brazil: Gonzalez lost his starting job.

OK, maybe it wasn't so funny.

A series of in-game gaffes across multiple games, combined with Geoff Cameron's rise to prominence with Stoke City of the English Premier League, led national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann to pick Cameron over Gonzalez in the warmup games ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Cameron also started ahead of Gonzalez in the first two matches in Group G.

Against Portugal in Manaus, however, Cameron struggled badly: His whiffed clearance led to an early Portugal goal, and former Houston Dynamo star never got into the rhythm of the match.

Perhaps because of Cameron's miscues, Gonzalez got his chance to start against Germany on Thursday—and he absolutely killed it.

The Americans may have lost, 1-0, but the defense looked solid, and Klinsmann will be hard-pressed to leave Gonzalez out of the lineup for the team's round of 16 match against Belgium on Tuesday.

"I thought Omar had a fantastic game—especially in the first half," Matt Besler said. "With the three or four clearances he made, it was really big for us."

Indeed it was. Gonzalez, a former standout at the University of Maryland, and Major League Soccer's Defender of the Year in 2011, made several sliding tackles to thwart golden chances for Germany, and he headed away multiple crosses as well.

"My first 90 minutes in a World Cup—there were a lot of emotions," Gonzalez said after the Germany match. He had come on in stoppage time against Portugal, but didn't have a chance to do much in that contest. "A lot of things going through my head."

I just wanted to take it one play at a time and just move on from there," he said. "I was just focusing on doing my job and helping my team win."

In the opening moments of the match, disaster nearly struck for both Gonzalez and the U.S. national team. Mesut Ozil sent in a cross from the right flank and....

"The one that went through my legs?" Gonzalez said in response to a reporter's question. "I'm not going to be perfect. No one's comfortable out on that field. It's the way that I've got to manage with being uncomfortable.

"After that little hiccup I think all of my clearances were pretty good."

Better than pretty good, actually. After that early play, Gonzalez was pretty much flawless. It was a very good time to play his best game for the U.S. national team.

"I felt like I was pretty solid today," Gonzalez said. "I did my job. I haven't been getting much of a look since the beginning of camp because of my little injury. But I've always said I was going to stay ready. I got my opportunity today and I'm just happy that I could step on the field and do whatever I could to help this team go through.

"We kept Germany to 1-0. We were very well organized today. They didn't get it behind us. Looking toward the next game we want to be able to keep the ball a little bit more."

When Besler had to be subbed off against Ghana in the first game of the tournament, many pundits were surprised that Klinsmann replaced him with John Brooks instead of Gonzalez. There were plenty of whispers that Gonzalez had played himself out of the rotation, but Thursday Klinsmann showed that wasn't the case.

"We wanted to give Cam a break," the coach said after the match. "We don't have the luxury to say that every player can go every four days at the highest level, so we thought two or three subs" might help us.

"Having Omar come in and getting his game, kickstarting his tournament now, that's very important.

"He was ready. He has worked so hard the past six weeks. He was ready for it and he showed that on the field."

And Besler didn't mind one bit.

"First of all, it wasn't difficult at all," the Sporting Kansas City star said, referring to the adjustments he had to make with a new defense partner. "Me and Omar have quite a bit of experience together. We're extremely comfortable playing in the back together. Our communication is great.

"So there wasn't too much of an adjustment for me."

Besler felt good, Gonzalez played great, and despite Thomas Muller's 55th-minute strike, the defense looked very strong against a powerful opponent.

As the game wound down, Germany kept pressing forward, but the defense stood strong. And then everybody, even the players, started focusing on the Ghana-Portugal score.

"We didn't really have much of an idea about what was going on in the other game," Gonzalez said. "Then with about 10 minutes left Tim Howard came up and said the score—I have no idea how he got that information.

"I wasn't too worried about the other match. We came into this game wanting to win this game, but when we went down 1-0 we wanted to tie it up. And if we couldn't tie it up we wanted to keep it 1-0 because we knew that was our best chance of getting through."

And get through they did, even though the team did so in bizarre, anticlimactic fashion.

"I was saying in the locker room," Gonzalez said, "last game's draw felt like a loss; today's loss felt like a win. So it's pretty weird. But hey, our mission from the very beginning was to get to the next round, and job well done.

"Everyone in there is very happy," he added, nodding toward a players-only area. "There were some pictures taken. Smiles everywhere.

"Now we have to fly back to Sao Paolo and start focusing on our next game."

Also on Gonzalez' to-do list: finding his mother, father, and wife, who could not get to the stadium to watch him play due to massive flooding in Recife.

"I'm still not sure where they watched it," he said with a laugh. "I think they were streaming it on their phones. They were all huddled around a couple of phones.

"But now we've given them another game to go to."

John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now, and he'd love to hear your thoughts about Omar Gonzalez's performance. Would you like to see him start in the round of 16? Tell us below.

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