HOUSTON – Heading into the US national team’s January camp, it was no secret that all eyes would be firmly fixed on the center back position, with the last two MLS Defenders of the Year jockeying for position ahead of next week's World Cup qualifier in Honduras.
And with the arrival of Tuesday night’s tune-up against Canada (9 pm ET, ESPN2/Univision Deportes/Sportsnet, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), it’s clear that both Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are well aware of the stakes.
“I’m always aware of the situation,” Besler told reporters on Monday evening. “At the end of the day, we’re all competing for a spot on the team, but, the fact is at the moment there’s a lot of openings and opportunities at center back.”
The popular theory has been that US coaches are actively looking for the perfect central partner for the athletic Geoff Cameron, who has emerged as perhaps the most reliable option in the back. Besler, who is Sporting Kansas City’s general on the back line, would seem the perfect fit as a game manager, and he’s found comfort in the similarities between the US and SKC’s style.
“To be honest, we do a lot of similar things,” Besler said. “We want to high pressure teams and we want to go forward as fast as we can. A lot of the stuff is similar. I came in very comfortable and with a lot of confidence so I’m feeling very good about my game.”
While the SKC man has his ears open, Gonzalez has tried to keep a singular focus on the task at hand.
The LA Galaxy strongman told reporters after Tuesday’s open training that he has made it a point to keep the pressure to a minimum while focusing on what head coach Jurgen Klinsmann wants.
And that was, in fact, made easier when Klinsmann (right) went public with his expectations of Gonzalez when the camp roster was first announced on Jan. 6.
"He needs to show us he’s ready for a big step into international football," Klinsmann said at the time. "He needs to show us that he wants to break in. He needs to show us that he’s ready to guide a back line, that he’s ready to communicate a lot and take over the responsibility."
And although Gonzalez says he read those quotes, he’s focused more on the things he can control while in camp this month.
“I heard that he did that, I may have read a couple articles, but I basically took it with a grain of salt,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I knew what he wanted and just focused on doing those things without getting too stressed out about it.
“Just tried to stay calm about it and stay in a camp where we’ve all worked hard and put in the effort and we’re all looking forward to putting in a great effort tomorrow night.”
While the chance to take the next step could be available for both players, neither Gonzalez nor Besler are letting it dominate their thoughts. What they do know is that team success Tuesday could open the door to the place that both want to be: on the roster for the first World Cup qualifier.
“I don’t think anyone’s going out there individually trying to make their mark,” Besler said. “I think everyone’s going to try and do it within the team. The best thing for me to do is for us to win the game.”
Few players have looked forward to the Canada friendly more than the Houston Dynamo trio of Brad Davis, Will Bruin and Tally Hall. The game marks the first US international match at BBVA Compass Stadium, and all three hometown players could feature for Klinsmann's squad.
“We are very impressed with all three of them," Klinsmann said."It's for us coaches always great having an opportunity to see some players that you haven't worked with before. They're good quality. And I think they're thrilled as well that the whole camp ends up in Houston in their home stadium."