CARSON, Calif.-- As a throng of media hovered around Landon Donovan in the LA Galaxy locker room after last Saturday’s 1-0 playoff win against Real Salt Lake, one teammate of Donovan dressed quietly behind the pack. The media scrum seemed oblivious to his presence, even though he’s the biggest player on the Galaxy, and arguably their most important player.
The media scrum surely know all about Omar Gonzalez, but on this day he isn’t the storyline. The story is all the missed chances squandered by the Galaxy attack. Gonzalez’s day to be the center of the scrum will surely come at some point this postseason, especially if he can help lead the Galaxy to a third straight championship.
Plenty has changed for Gonzalez in the year since he scored the winning goal and earned MLS Cup MVP honors, in the Galaxy’s 2012 MLS Cup victory against the Houston Dynamo. He has since become a fixture on the U.S. national team and more recently he secured the largest contract ever signed by a defender in MLS, becoming the first pure center back Designated Player.
With his lofty status has come more scrutiny over a season that has had its ups and downs for the 25-year-old. After overcoming some early-season mistakes for both club and country, Gonzalez did eventually find a good run of form that coincided with the Galaxy finding a good stretch as well.
What wasn’t widely known about Gonzalez is that he had been carrying an injury dating back to last year’s MLS Cup Final, a strained adductor that had hampered him throughout the season.
“My whole thing was my injury. I’ve been dealing with my injury for quite some time, and now I think I’m getting over the hump and closing out the season I’ve been feeling really good,” Gonzalez told Sporting News. “I just have to do what I can, and keep getting treatment, so that my body can keep feeling better.”
Gonzalez blamed the injury for dips in form that plagued him, including a recent one that came around the time he signed his new multi-million dollar contract.
“It was funny. We qualified for the World Cup and I should have been really high in confidence, but the D.C. thing happened and for some reason my confidence was low,” Gonzalez said. “The contract thing was never an issue in affecting play.”
While it may not have led to his dips in form, Gonzalez did admit a sense of relief when he finally signed his new deal, which at three years and nearly $5 million makes him the highest-paid defender and one of the highest-paid players in the league.
“The sense of relief is that it’s over with and I can focus on playing,” Gonzalez said. “Once the deal was done I was free to just concentrate on playing. It was a load off my shoulders.”
Now, Gonzalez can focus on leading a Galaxy attack to a third title. In doing so, Gonzalez is working with a new center back partner in rookie Kofi Opare, who Gonzalez has high praise for.
“At the beginning of the season everybody thought he was just another body in practice, but slowly he kept his mind open and started learning and eventually he started turning heads,” Gonzalez said. “He got his chance in the Champions League and showed very well and since then he’s just been very confident.
“It’s really great to see because now he’s the number one starter and he’s been doing phenomenal for us.”
While Gonzalez is focused on the MLS playoffs, he admits to thinking about what lies ahead with the national team. A year ago he was on the outside looking in, but now he has established himself as a regular starter. Gonzalez isn’t taking anything for granted and knows new challengers will keep coming along to test his position.
“The conversations (with coach Jurgen Klinsmann) have always been pretty good but I like to look from the outside looking in and he’s always bringing in young guys and always trying to push the envelope, making you feel like you can always lose your job,” Gonzalez said. “So right now I feel pretty confident in my position, but at the same time there’s a bunch of guys that would love to step into my position so leading up to the World Cup there’s only a few months left.
“I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. I just want to put my head down and keep finding ways to get better, and keep the conversations open with the coaches. Whatever they do is out of my control. I can only control what I do on the field.”
Gonzalez will have his next chance to impress Klinsmann on Thursday against Real Salt Lake. A win there will bring Gonzalez and the Galaxy a step closer to a third MLS Cup title, and give Gonzalez yet another chance to give media hordes a reason to surround him in the next round of post-game interviews.