One of the leading candidates for Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year award is a product of Bradenton's youth national team residency, and he was tracking his former teammates in the under-20 World Cup, though he is no longer eligible to participate in that particular age group.
Omar Gonzalez, now a central defender for the Los Angeles Galaxy, was once a member of the U-17 USA National Team. He played in Peru at the 2005 U17 World Cup, when some of the current U-20 members were the young hopefuls of the residency program.
"Bryan Arguez, Peri (Marosevic), Mikey Stephens and all those guys were there," Gonzalez recalled. "It's awesome to see them out there and playing well. Hopefully, they can keep it up."
Though he played as a forward in his U17 days, Gonzalez joined the ranks of attackers who have successfully transitioned to a defensive role, such as Jonathan Spector and Chris Albright.
The Galaxy now stand on a cusp of the MLS playoffs after a three-year absence from the postseason, but that previous failure didn't really haunt Gonzalez. Since he is a rookie, he wasn't a part of those teams who failed to extend their MLS season.
In fact, while the Galaxy were struggling, Gonzalez was tasting success on the national level, though in a different context. He won national youth club championships as well as an NCAA championship with Maryland.
"I've been on several championship teams, with the Dallas Texans and going to Maryland," said Gonzalez of his experience with the knockout format of the playoffs. "I think I'm pretty prepared. I feel I know what it takes, but at this level, it's going to take that much more. I need to come prepared and ready to fight the whole game."
The steady play of Gonzalez has helped shore up the Galaxy defense, which was simply horrid last year. Both of the current regular central defenders, Gonzalez and veteran Gregg Berhalter, are new to the squad, yet have forged a strong working partnership.
"I just have to make sure that if the ball gets over him, I get there and he does the same for me," Gonzalez said. "It's a mutual respect."
Though this year's crop of rookies has been notable for several strong candidates, Gonzalez has won plaudits in particular for being a key ingredient of the Galaxy's turn-around.
The adjustment to a pro level is usually hard physically on former college players, as the university system allows for more liberal substitutions, often leaving players without the stamina to play full professional matches.
Omar Gonzalez | Quality rookie defender for Los Angeles
Yet while Gonzalez worked hard in the preseason of MLS to prepare himself for the rigors of the league, he had to learn on the field how to improve his concentration. The young defender said that change was the biggest transition he had to make.
"Mentally, you have to be focused for the full 90," said Gonzalez. "At points this season, I just lost it there and gave up some PKs. That's something that I've had to change and grow up a little bit."
While many U.S. Soccer fans have debated the possible addition of New Mexico native Edgar Castillo to the national team, since he played for Mexico's youth squad and even the full national team in a friendly, it's an issue that can go both ways.
Though he was born in Dallas, Texas, Gonzales is fully eligible for both the USA, and through his parents, Mexico.
"I've talked to my parents about it a couple of times," said Gonzalez of his options. "They're going to back me whichever way that I decide to go."
At 6'5, Gonzales provides more of a physical presence on aerial threats than Mexico's current first-choice at centerback, Barcelona's Rafael Marquez, though he obviously lacks the world-class experience of Marquez. Yet Gonzalez is also faster than many would anticipate, surprisingly technical with the ball, and an offensive threat on any corner kick opportunity.
Gonzalez even tops, if only slightly, American Oguchi Onyewu, who is a inch shorter. The AC Milan defender leads the USA backline, but aside from Onyewu, the USA defense has been in transition. An eye injury to Jay DeMerit has led to a shuffle in personnel.
Typically, the Mexican-Americans who have contributed to the US national team have also had some development via that neighboring country, such as Jose Francisco Torres with Pachuca, Castillo at Santos, or Michael Orozco with San Luis.
Gonzalez, however, has been All-American in his developmental progress, from youth club teams, to the USA U17 squad, to college, to MLS.
Yet he wasn't ruling out El Tri as a possibility.
"As far as me wanting to play for whoever, just being on the US U17 makes me want to play for the full national team, but I'm not counting out Mexico," Gonzalez clarified. "Whoever asks me, I'll think about it and make my choice, but so far, no one has come up to me. I'm just waiting for it."
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
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