CARSON, Calif. — If Omar Gonzalez has absorbed one lesson over the past year, it’s that the fast track to stardom isn’t without its hurdles.
This past January, the 6-foot-5 Los Angeles Galaxy center back had just claimed Defender of the Year honors before enjoying his first MLS Cup triumph. Around the corner, securing a lucrative European contract and a stable place with the U.S. national team seemed inevitable.
During the first practice of an offseason loan to German side FC Nuremberg, however, Gonzalez felt his knee give out in a collision with compatriot Timothy Chandler. The diagnosis? Torn ACL.
“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t see myself getting back to this level,” Gonzalez said. “I had some days where I was just thinking if I was ever going to come back the same way.”
Well those doubts, it’s safe to say, were put to rest Saturday. Back in the MLS Cup, the University of Maryland product was a force in the air during the Galaxy’s 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo, scoring the equalizing goal with one header and setting up the go-ahead penalty kick with another.
“He played a very good game,” Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis said. “And a player like that who’s on top of his game is tough to beat.”
Said Gonzalez: “That’s just what I’ve got to do, game in, game out. I’ve got to be dominant in the air. That’s what I’m known for.”
After running away with the Supporters’ Shield (best regular-season record) last year en route to the title, the Galaxy struggled to start 2012 before rallying to make the postseason, win a play-in game and book their MLS Cup ticket with two series upsets.
The re-emergence of Gonzalez, who returned to action July 4, was a major factor, with Los Angeles going 8-3-3 with 1.07 goals allowed per game when he played but an 8-9-3 mark and 1.60 goals conceded without the Dallas native.
“Probably the turning point in their season was when he got healthy,” Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said, “because a lot of things were good going forward but maybe not as strong defensively.”
Now that Gonzalez has returned to health and top form, the conversation can again turn to his future with the national team. Although he has only played in two international matches, and none since January 2011, the 24-year-old was on coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s stand-by list for two key contests in October.
As Bruce Arena, the Galaxy coach who the led the U.S. at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, noted, “I’m confident Omar is a player that can play internationally for the United States.”
With the U.S. preparing for next year’s grueling 10-match final stage of 2014 World Cup qualifying and the American back line an aging entity, Klinsmann — who was at Home Depot Center for Saturday’s game — could very well call on Gonzalez sooner rather than later.
“Omar is not just a special player, but he’s a special person as well,” Beckham said. “He works hard, he listens. He’s a young player with a lot of talent. I hope someday that he will play for the U.S. national team more regularly because he deserves it.”