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The Omar Conundrum: Why Gonzalez is making life hard on Klinsmann and the U.S.

Apr 3, 2014, 7:12 PM EDT

United States' Gonzalez celebrates their victory over Mexico in their FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match in Columbus Reuters

For all the quality Matt Besler has, it’s hard to find an area of his tool set that’s truly excellent. He may be one of the smartest defenders in the U.S. Men’s National Team pool, but unless you work with a guy day-in, day-out, that’s a bit of an unknown. In the skills we see while watching with the Sporting Kansas City defender, the guy is steadily above-average, across the board. Even on throw-ins, he’s very good.

He’s the exact type of guy you want defending your goal, but he does have his limitations. He’s not slow, but some can still run by him. He’s strong enough, but on occasion, can be pushed around. He’s decent on set pieces but not the man you want marking the opposing team’s greatest threat. Even that suspected high game intelligence doesn’t lead to mistake-free soccer. Solid in all areas, the Sporting captain isn’t the ideal matchup against somebody with an elite skill.

Hence, Aurélien Collin. When he’s on his game, the Frenchman is better than Besler, but he’s not always on his game. In fact, that happens so infrequently that the U.S. international is generally considered the superior player. As last year’s playoffs showed, Collin is capable of being the best player on the field, but over the course of a season — when individual games reveal and occasionally slow, foul-prone, and ill-tempered Collin — you’d probably take the more well-rounded, steady presence.

The Omar Gonzalez Conundrum

All of which brings us to Besler’s national team partner. After last night’s game against Mexico, Omar Gonzalez’s play is again under the microscope. The LA Galaxy Designated Player lost Rafa Marquez on Mexico’s first goal and was left hoping the assistant referee would bail him out of his part in El Tri’s second. At other times, when he was losing aerial duels and otherwise looking amiss in his positioning and reactions, Gonzalez looked every bit the player some want dropped in favor of Clarence Goodson.

source: Getty ImagesIt creates a conundrum for Jurgen Klinsmann. As he showed in the 2012 MLS Cup final, Omar Gonzalez has the ability to define games, and while this summer’s challenges will far exceed those the Houston Dynamo posed the Galaxy back then, Gonzalez represents the U.S.’s best chance to stand up to the likes of Germany and Portugal. When he is on his game, the former MLS Defender of the Year is by far the best center back at Klinsmann’s disposal. To choose him along side Besler’s steadying safeguard is to embrace the U.S.’s best-case scenario.

The other side of that coin defines Klinsmann’s dilemma. Like Collin, more games than not, Gonzalez isn’t a world beater, and his mistakes with the United States have become so frequent, people are starting to reassess the risk versus reward. How many Gonzalez errors become too much to justify his place in the starting XI? And is this just a lottery where, in the end, any winning proposition will likely be offset by the mistakes we’ve invested?

It’s been too long since we’ve seen a dominant Gonzalez performance in red, white and blue. It’s been a long time since we saw one for the Galaxy, too. Ever since his MLS Cup MVP-winnig performance in Carson, Calif., Gonzalez hasn’t played like an elite defender. Wavering between very good and too mistake-prone, his reputation is treading on potential more than performance. Though he’s only 25, Gonzalez’s renown is based on his past more than his present or future.

That’s not to say Gonzalez can’t again be great, but Jurgen Klinsmann needs to get some indication that it will happen. Else, he’s betting on memories. He’s betting the Omar Gonzalez we haven’t seen in over a year will emerge some time between now and June 16. And unfortunately for Goodson, that may create an unrealistic standard. Goodson not only has to out-play the current Gonzalez, he has to outplay the best Gonzalez possible – the one for whom Klinsmann seems to be holding out.

It’s the type of player I often hate writing about, one that feeds into whatever bias viewers want to carry. If you’re inclined to focus on the best parts of a defender’s game — evaluating players on their highlight reels and not their 90-minute contributions — Gonzalez can still look great. Thunderous clearances. Decisive reads. The commanding way he can take a man off the ball. When he’s Best Defender in the League Omar, it’s all there, painting a tantalizing picture of his potential.

But for defenders, mistakes matter. They really, incredibly matter. It’s part of the reason Germany’s Mats Hummels may be one of the most overrated players in the world. Like goalkeepers, defenders can’t just cancel out a key mistake with 89 minutes of good work. You can be great on the ball, spectacular on set pieces, have the strength to sack toss Hulk and the speed to chase down Ronaldo, but in the high leverage situations where defenders must perform, you can’t screw up. Defenders can’t consistently give up good chances.

source: Getty ImagesBetween now and Brazil

Consistency is Gonzalez’s main problem. Not game-to-game consistency, because he has been fairly predictable over the last season-plus. It’s minute-to-minute consistency that’s the issue, the type of varying performance that leads to a couple of nervy moments each match. As has been the case throughout his time under Klinsmann (with the possible exception of a small span last year), Gonzalez hasn’t been able to string together 90 mistake-free minutes with the national team.

Wednesday only reinforced that notion, but there’s still time. Between now and kickoff against Ghana, Gonzalez will have his opportunities to prove he’s more reliable. Perhaps he won’t start every game of the U.S.’s sendoff series, but he’s sure to start at least one. And given the faith Klinsmann’s shown in one of his first choice center backs, one good game may be enough. Gonzalez only needs to show that his past is still possible.

That’s why it’s too early to say Gonzalez played himself out of the lineup. Although the performance fit a larger pattern, Wednesday’s game will be insignificant once the team gets together in May. And there’s no question: Gonzalez will definitely be in Palo Alto, where he’ll have every chance to prove his hiccups are behind him.

Yes, the performance was worrisome, but it’s not going to redefine Gonzalez’s prospects for Brazil. May, however, will.

  1. dfstell - Apr 3, 2014 at 8:38 PM

    You know…..I kinda blame his teammates a little bit. The guy obviously has a slight problem being aggressive enough and a slight problem focusing in the second half. This isn’t news. It would be nice if he didn’t have this problem, but he does. And it’s one of those things where a teammate needs to put a boot in his butt or ask him nicely (whatever works) and tell him to be aggressive, to pay attention…..

  2. midtec2005 - Apr 3, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    I know I was affected by what I’m about to describe, as a player. Sometimes if the first half goes too well, it’s actually easier to let your guard down in the second half. Maybe what happened will be a good learning experience… let’s hope so.

  3. trogdor4 - Apr 4, 2014 at 12:01 AM

    I think I have to disagree a little about the Besler statements … Being “very good” at all the individual skills and talents that it takes to be a defender, actually means you are pretty elite.

    Omar Gonzalez is not “very good” in a couple areas that matter most in being a defender. He loses his focus on the game and more importantly his mark – in the most puzzling of times. Corner kicks? Come on! Play is stopped! Everyone knows they are about to serve the ball in! Yet OG loses his man on a simple pick? Where were his eyes when his mark started towards the pick? Why wasn’t he anticipating the most basic thing that happens on ALL CORNER KICKS?

    OG also isn’t very good at reading the attack angles. He has been caught way too many times being stiff and slow to the ball. Sure he can use his height for the aerial stuff, but Portugal, Germany, and Ghana aren’t going to be playing the long ball in time and time again – they are going to be bringing it right at us on the ground and up the middle … That doesn’t suit OG well …

    I just think they guy better start shining soon, or Cameron is gonna take his place.

    • rafibomb10 - Apr 4, 2014 at 9:04 AM

      Actually Portugal will be attacking us down the wings with players like Ronaldo, Nani, Danny, and possibly Quarasma. The focus on those games will be our outside backs, and how they match up on thier dangerous wingers. Our centerback’s responsibilities in that match will either be to play a high line and hope to frustrate Ronaldo, or to sit back and defend split second counter attacks. Both are a tough challenge for any center back pairing in the world, not just Omar.

      Germany actually have been changing their game, more so in the past five or so years. Back in ’06 I would have agree with you, because they were dangerous with the long ball, and big bodies. However now, they have changed to a more posession based idea, able to develop players like Gotze, Reus, and Kroos, that their game has changed. Not as dramatic of a posession oriented game like Spain, but still based around having the ball. Omar actually I believe suits playing Germany better than the other two.

      Just my opinion, but I think we agree on some things.

  4. patriotsdefense - Apr 4, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    Andrew Farrell? Or is he still too green?

  5. rafibomb10 - Apr 4, 2014 at 8:54 AM

    It is sad that everything this guy does on the field is seen through a microscope. While I do not like the way he has been playing as of late, I still see him as our best option at Center Back. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Replacing him with a player like Cameron or Goodson, while it wouldn’t be disasterous, still would not be the ideal scenario. Hate to voice my opinion of a former national team manager, but I believe Big Ol’ Bruce Arena is the reason for Omar’s struggles. Tactically the game Bruce is preaching/using is about a generation older than the one Jurgen uses. I may be in the minority, but I believe Omar has hit his celing under under Arena (Literally Haha) that is affecting Omar, both with the US and LA.

    Thats all…

    • midtec2005 - Apr 4, 2014 at 10:51 AM

      I agree with you about Gonzalez over Goodson and Cameron. I think Cameron is prone to the same types of mistakes, and Goodson just isn’t athletic at all. If any of the current group, I’d start Parkhurst over him.

      • rasputin9 - Apr 9, 2014 at 3:42 PM

        Yes ,inconsistency is Omar Gonzales biggest problem . When I saw him playing for the first time , I thought he was great . I don’t remember if it was with the running US , or a league game The ball was going straight into the goal , but out of no where , Omar came running fast , and made an spectacular save by sliding and sending the ball out for a corner kick .
        Since then , I have seen him do good things and bad things . If he can not stop Mexican forwards from scoring , what can we expect from him against more aggressive and talented players from Germany , or Portugal ? . It is really a situation of great concern .

  6. geojock - Apr 4, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    I am afraid this is what is going to cost us in the World Cup. I not only fear for Gonzo, but also for Besler. Besler is already overachieving, once we hit some elite competition I am not sure he can raise his game since he his at his ceiling. I feel like Gonzo capable to give up 2 goals to Ghana then world class defending against Portugal or Germany.

  7. godsholytrousers - Apr 4, 2014 at 12:39 PM

    Omar wins over Clarence
    Everything Else:
    Clarence wins over Omar

    What we saw on Wed. was unacceptable at the National Team Level.
    1) Not fighting through the pick, the bread and butter of every center back in the world.
    2) Ball watching like an under-12 classic league player.

    Add on the locker room danger of allowing Omar to throw Kyle Beckerman under the bus and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Omar needs to shut up, man up, and grow up.

  8. talgrath - Apr 4, 2014 at 1:46 PM

    As always, the conundrum we face with Gonzalez is simple, those mistakes are eyesores and obvious, but who else is there to take his place? Parkhurst could play center, though I don’t think he’s as good in the center as he is on the wings, but then you’re left with an outside back conundrum, trading one problem for another. If you had a clone of Besler, I think I’d put him in before Gonzalez, but replacing him with Goodson is a little less clear. With Goodson, while you don’t see the “brainfart” moments that Gonzalez has, you do so see the little things where he’s just consistently getting beaten by forwards at the international level; you’ll say that Goodson tried but that he just wasn’t good enough, instead of that he made an obvious error. So which is worse? One or two obvious errors a game or a guy who consistently just isn’t quite good enough to stick with the best most of the time?

    • godsholytrousers - Apr 4, 2014 at 2:58 PM

      As a team, you can deal with and scheme for the Goodson (not just good enough) moments, they are predictable and can be compartmentalized.

      As a team, you can NEVER deal with the Gonzales (brainfart) moments, they are unpredictable, and can’t be schemed for, or overcome.

      • talgrath - Apr 4, 2014 at 8:00 PM

        i think that comes down to a matter of degrees though. If you need to drop back Beckermen or Jones just to cover for consistently subpar play, you may as well not have him there at all.

  9. godsholytrousers - Apr 4, 2014 at 2:54 PM

    Omar was the culprit in many of the goals scored against the US during the last year of play. He is a ball watcher, and is not always on alert. His mistakes are horrendous and cause the team to deflate. I blame Bruce Arena and LA Galaxy who have failed to keep his game advancing. As the old saying goes, if you are not getting better, you’re getting worse.

    Omar should be on the plane to Brazil, but Goodson has won the starters job along side Besler barring injury.

  10. elgallo2001 - Apr 4, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    Basically, we are going into this Cup with an iffy D. Beck or Jones is going to have to sit back deep and help out a lot. It’s going to be ruff, but I still believe we can get out of the group.

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