Of the many uncertainties surrounding the United States men's national team heading into the 2014 World Cup, what to do about the team’s struggling back line for its games against the powerful offenses of Ghana, Portugal and Germany remains near the top of that list.
Despite being up-and-down in the run-up to Brazil, Omar Gonzalez – one of the key pieces of the U.S. defensive unit – appears confident that he can thwart the reigning FIFA Player of the Year, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, quest to find the back of the net.
“I’d like to think that I’ll be able to stop him.”
- Omar González, talking about Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo
“I’d like to think that I’ll be able to stop him,” Gonzalez said Friday. “It’s definitely going to take a lot of hard work, and we definitely can’t take any breaks during the game.”
Gonzalez’s optimism is at odds with the overall uncertainty surrounding the rotating cast of defenders that national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann has to work with. It has definitely been the biggest question mark for the American team.
The 25-year old Gonzalez impressed Klinsmann with strong play on the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS and was a consistent starter for the national squad during World Cup qualifying. At least until a few months ago when Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron began to emerge as Klinsmann’s backfield favorites.
Much of this has to do with Belser and Cameron’s solid play, but it may have even more to do with the hot-and-cold nature of Gonzalez’s outings on the pitch.
The U.S.’s 0-0 draw against Mexico in Estadio Azteca last August is surely a highlight of his international career, and Gonzalez has had his fair share of success against the country in which he holds dual citizenship. More recently, however, in a World Cup warm-up against Azerbaijan, Gonzalez’s play off the bench appeared sluggish and his passes were anything but crisp, preferring big boots down field to working the ball to midfielders … a big no-no in the Klinsmann regime.
Gonzalez also has been hampered by a knee injury that kept him off the pitch for his last game with the Galaxy before World Cup preparations began in earnest, and while he says he is 100 percent, it is uncertain if Klinsmann believes that. Gonzalez remained on the bench on Sunday during the U.S.’s 2-1 win against Turkey.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Klinsmann told reporters following the match, referring to U.S.'s shaky, but adequate defense. “We have to become more compact, more connected between the players, making it more difficult for (opponents) to come through (the middle).”
His starting spot may still be up in the air thanks to Cameron’s solid play of late, but the fulfillment of a lifelong dream – playing in the Cup – is all but assured for Gonzalez.
Depending on how the his fellow defenders play, along with how the teams deals with heat and travel, Gonzalez is likely find see himself in the starting lineup once again for at least one of the U.S.’s group matches.
“Gonzalez will be a very important piece of the [national team] puzzle in Brazil, and he will see plenty of time on the pitch,” Kyle Bonn of ProSoccertalk wrote.