Dec 1, 2012, 7:49 PM EDT
CARSON, Calif. – Completing a season where his absence left no question how valuable he was to a team defined by it’s top-line stars, defender Omar Gonzalez was ever-present for the LA Galaxy on Saturday. Kept out of the team until summer while recovering from an offseason knee injury, the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year transcended his position, scoring the Galaxy’s first goal before providing a vital contribution toward the game-winner. Dominant in the air at the back while providing a series of late, crucial clearances that protected his keeper, Gonzalez completed his 2012 comeback with a Man of the Match performance in Saturday’s MLS Cup final.
That it was Gonzalez – not goalscorers Landon Donovan or Robbie Keane, or the retiring megastar David Beckham – who stole the stage should surprise nobody. That he did it in the opponent’s penalty area as opposed to his own was the shock.
In the 60th minute, with his team having conceded an opener just before halftime, Gonzalez found himself unmarked at the left post eight yards from goal, Juninho having taken a touch before lining up a cross to LA’s most dangerous aerial threat. As he elevated for the outswinging ball, right back Kofie Sarkodie tried to backpedal out an contest the cros. The second-year right back proved out of his league against the 6’5″ center half. Gonzalez hammered the ball back across goal, just inside Tally Hall’s far post to make it 1-1.
Though LA’s second came from the spot, it was another Gonzalez header that started the penalty-drawing play. On a chipped in ball from David Beckham, Gonzalez cut in front of Hall to win the ball, knocking it down to start a series of events ending in a Ricardo Clark hand ball. When Landon Donovan slotted home the ensuing kick, LA had the lead they’d never relinquish.
In defense, Gonzalez’s brilliance existed in persistence, not highlights. Though he was the man that kept Calen Carr onside ahead of Houston’s only goal, the rest of his game was impeccable. In the first half, he helped LA withstand Houston’s early change with perfect positioning ahead of the crosses he would eventually defuse. In the second, his early aggression stepping into midfield set an the intense tone that spurred LA to three-goal half. At match’s end, his recovery on balls played behind the line kept Josh Saunders’ save total at a modest five.
Fifteen clearances. Eleven interceptions. Six headers won. They’re numbers that will be overshadowed by his opening goal, but ultimately, the defensive contributions were worth more.
In the process, Gonzalez reaffirmed his place as the league’s best defender nine months after his knee injury temporarily relinquished the title. No other player in the league is as capable of such a dominating, all-around performance from defense. For it, Gonzalez was rightly recognized as the 2012 MLS Cup Man of the Match.
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