CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy believe Omar Gonzalez should have been a US national team regular for some time now, and they're certainly overjoyed to see his progress under Jurgen Klinsmann, even if it means he's missing every now and then – as will be the case Saturday when the two-time defending MLS Cup champions take on the Colorado Rapids (10:30 pm ET, MLS Live)
He's always had the size (6-foot-5) and aptitude to be an outstanding central defender, but his growing maturity and experience, aided in part by his six months on the sidelines after shredding an ACL last year, has prodded him to another level, and he's in position to become a mainstay on the US backline for many years.
Gonzalez is currently with the US national team for World Cup qualifiers Friday against Costa Rica in Commerce City, Colo., and March 26 against Mexico at Estadio Azteca, where he could partner with Clarence Goodson or, as in last month's loss to Honduras, Geoff Cameron.
“We just want to give him the opportunity to grow and to mature in our environment ...,” Klinsmann, who gave Gonzalez 90 minutes in last month's loss to Honduras, said this week. “To see his potential and now for him to get to another level is only by playing and getting experience and growing, and I think he has done well so far. We believe there's a real special player coming through the system.”
The Galaxy need no convincing on that point. Gonzalez was the MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009, a Best XI selection in 2010 and 2011, the league Defender of the Year in 2011 and the MLS Cup MVP last year, when his July return from his knee injury was pivotal to LA's superb form the second half of the season.
“He's been ready [to play for the US] for a while now,” defender Todd Dunivant told MLSsoccer.com. “He had the injury last year, so that's kind of set him back. He's without a doubt a guy we need to have game-in and game-out with the national team. He's established himself as the best defender in our league, and that should translate to the national team.”
Gonzalez has improved his touch, his ability to read the game, his prowess commanding the backline and his understanding of how he can make his imprint, whether at the back or as a set-piece target in the opponent's box.
“Experience is invaluable. He's seen more plays, he's been involved in more plays,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan told MLSsoccer.com. “I think having sat out, he was able to observe real professional players, how David [Beckham] prepared, how Robbie [Keane] prepares, guys who've been around -- what it takes to be a complete professional on and off the field. ... He's become a much more well-rounded professional, dedicated athlete, and he understands the big picture now.”
Head coach Bruce Arena says Gonzalez is only nearing 100 percent – “in 2012, he probably played at about 75 percent” – and says he's “tuned in” in ways he wasn't in his first couple of seasons as a pro.
“You need somebody at the center of the defense to be the vocal guy who can command the whole team, and he's learning to do that ...,” Dunivant said. “He's more tuned in, more focused, and when you're leading guys around you, you yourself are more tuned in, and that's helped him a lot.”
The Galaxy's backline depth makes replacing Gonzalez against the Rapids rather simple. Leonardo steps in next to A.J. DeLaGarza, and Tommy Meyer, still gaining fitness after a hamstring injury, is ready to come off the bench if needed.
“We all know our roles and how the system works and the philosophy that we preach here,” DeLaGarza said, “so it shouldn't change too much.”