CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy understand the special nature of the opportunity in front of them, taking on two-time defending champions Monterrey for a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League final and a chance to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup.
It means even more to LA defender Omar Gonzalez.
The Galaxy's backline leader has roots in Nuevo León, plenty of family in Monterrey and an uncle who used to play for Los Rayados. He says he's treating the semifinal series, which begins Wednesday night at the Home Depot Center (10 pm ET, FOX Soccer, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), as “just another game,” but he knows it's more than that.
WATCH: Galaxy preview Monterrey 1st leg
His mother's family is from Monterrey, his father's is from Montemorelos, about an hour away, and he visited family in the area nearly every summer as a child and a few times at Christmas, too.
When Gonzalez heads to Monterrey for next week's second leg, it will be his first time back since a trial with Tigres UANL following his sophomore year at the University of Maryland.
“That's going to be amazing,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “That one will be more special than the one here, I think, because I'll be playing in front of a bunch of family. My mom's going to fly down for the game, and it's going to be fun.”
The challenge is enormous. Gonzalez and his partner in the middle, be it Leonardo or A.J. DeLaGarza, will be tasked with shutting down Monterrey forwards Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris, two of the region's most accomplished goalscorers.
“De Nigris, he's been good for a long time,” Gonzalez said. “He is a big presence, and he manages to get into the box always and always finishes off scoring chances. ... I've been watching [Suazo] on film. He scores amazing goals. His technical ability is great. He's very crafty and very clever, making great runs.”
Gonzalez's parents were born in Mexico but met after emigrating to Dallas, and the 6-foot-5 defender – a two-time MLS Best XI selection who has won the league's top-rookie (2009), best defender (2011) and MLS Cup MVP (2012) honors – had left open the possibility of playing for Mexico's national team until Jurgen Klinsmann this year made him a vital part of the US national team's backline.
He realized one dream last week, playing against Mexico at Estadio Azteca. Now he has a chance for more, and it's not all personal.
“We are playing against a team who's won this [tournament] twice, and my family's from there. My uncle used to play there,” Gonzalez said. “I just want this to be a good game. It's a good opportunity to show ourselves in front of a good Mexican club and just put ourselves on the map.”
His uncle, Lalo Rodríguez Plata – his mom's brother – was with Monterrey in the 1980s, too early for Gonzalez to have seen him play.
They haven't yet talked about this game.
“I haven't been able to get a hold of him,” Gonzalez said. “We did text each other after the Mexico game. He told me congratulations. That was nice.”
Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com.