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In a parallel universe, Omar Gonzalez might be on the home team this week as the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series between FC Dallas and Pachuca unfolds at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas on Wednesday (8 pm ET | UDN, Facebook Live).
As vaunted as FCD’s prolific academy has become in recent years, it’s still barely 8 years old, and was still just a gleam in Oscar Pareja’s eye when Gonzalez was rising through the sprawling, intensely competitive Dallas youth soccer scene.
He did train with the FC Dallas first team for a brief window in 2006 before departing for the University of Maryland – just a few months after Pareja had called time on his own playing career, and two years before the Colombian would begin to pilot the FCD academy towards its current heights.
He was born a few years too soon to be one of Papi’s kids, but Gonzalez has watched the Colombian’s work approvingly from afar.
“DFW has been a hotbed for talent for a long time and I think that FC Dallas being able to take those players and develop them the way they have – I mean, they have the best youth system in the United States,” he told MLSsoccer.com this week.
“Pachuca has the best youth system in Mexico and so I’ve really gotten to see a lot of young kids who come to train with us and who have tremendous talent. I just think that’s the way clubs should be run, developing their youth academies and bringing them up the system to their first team. I’ve seen it here at Pachuca and Dallas has done a tremendous job at that as well.”
Dallas reached the semifinals after defeating Arabe Unido in the quarterfinals, which they won after a lengthy preseason trip to Argentina. Pachuca reached the semis after defeating Saprissa.
If you’re looking for a rags-to-riches tale in American soccer, Gonzalez’s story is a good place to start.
Long before he won MLS and Liga MX titles and played in a World Cup, the tall, focused kid from the blue-collar neighborhood of Oak Cliff was spotted early – age 9 – by Marcio Leite, a decorated Brazilian coach at Dallas Texans SC, the club that more or less dominated the landscape until FCD’s arrival and is the closest thing they have to a local rival today.
The youngest of Adrian and Maria Gonzalez’s four children, a 5-year-old Omar got to be a flag bearer in the pregame festivities when the Cotton Bowl hosted World Cup matches in 1994, lighting a fire for the game that his parents stoked despite their limited means (Adrian drove a dump truck on construction projects at all hours, while Maria worked multiple jobs in addition to ferrying her children to their various activities).
“I had the easy job,” Omar’s father told the Dallas Morning News in 2014. “I just went to work. My wife, she drove to the parks and the practices and the tournaments. She had the hard job. And she maybe did it better.”
When the Texans came calling, however, the $1,500 team fee was too steep. But a teammate’s family offered to help, recognizing the new kid’s talent and his parents’ devotion. Leite and other Texans coaches would sculpt Gonzalez into a blue-chip prospect, while his teams – at first he shone with his own age group, then played up as his skills grew – won national titles and put in one of the best-ever performances by a US squad in the famous “Super Group” of the Dallas Cup.
Omar earned an invite to US Soccer’s Bradenton Residency Program for Under-17 national teamers before blossoming into a college star at Maryland, setting the stage for stardom with the LA Galaxy and eventually the US national team.
“Playing for Dallas Texans was a big part of why I am where I am, because it is a very well-run youth club and they had great coaches and we had maybe some of the best players in the Dallas area,” said Gonzalez. “Obviously there were other good teams, but I started out my club soccer with the 89s and then after residency I had moved up to the 88s and we won a few national championships. We had a very good team. So I think all those national championship runs, just playing at Richland College growing up was something that I’ll remember forever.”
His profession has taken him far from home for most of his adult life, but Omar is still well-connected to Dallas. His parents still live in the same house he grew up in – though they recently got a new landlord, of sorts.
“Actually now it’s my house. I just bought their house for them,” revealed Gonzalez, joking that he’s not even charging mom and dad rent. “I think every kid dreams of taking care of their parents one day, right? … So I’m very proud and happy that I was able to do that for them.”
Though Omar’s teams come first in their hearts, Adrian and Maria attend FCD games regularly, and will be leading a huge crowd of extended family to Wednesday’s match – around 200 in all, he says.
“I think we should have a good little cheering section,” said Gonzalez. “I was talking to my mom, and all my cousins and family and friends, they’ve been reaching out to her, trying to figure something out. So there should be a good attendance from the Gonzalez crew.”
Will they all be rooting for Pachuca, though?
“They better be,” he cracked.
After suffering through several promising but ultimately unsuccessful CCL campaigns with the Galaxy, the towering center back now finds himself on the other side of the MLS-Liga MX divide. LA reached the tournament’s knockout stages on three occasions during his tenure there, falling short of the final every time – twice at the hands of Mexican clubs.
Gonzalez knows all too well how much it would mean to MLS and its clubs to finally win CCL for the first time. But while he is quick to recognize the danger FCD pose, he and his Tuzos teammates are in no mood to let that history be made on their watch.
“When you’re MLS and you’re in these tournaments, obviously you want to win and you want to go to Club World Cup and those are the things you’re fighting for,” he said. “But since I’ve come here and since we got a ticket to this tournament, these games are of the utmost importance to our coach, to our owner. We want to be there in Dubai in December. So that’s one of our main goals and I think we have a real shot of getting there.
After Wednesday’s first leg in Texas, Pachuca host the second and decisive leg at their Estadio Hidalgo home on April 4. The series winner will vie for the title of North America’s top club in the CCL final next month.