Omar Gonzalez danced naked in the LA Galaxy locker room after winning the 2012 MLS Cup. The exuberance he showed after scoring – flailing his arms like an inflatable advertising tubeman – plus champagne, stripped him of his shorts as he celebrated the trophy in the heart of the Home Depot Center.
"It was pretty emotional for me after the game because at the beginning of the year I didn't see myself getting back to this level," Gonzalez said after winning the 2012 MLS Cup MVP. "I had some days when I was just thinking if I was ever going to come back the same way. … Today was really special for me because I know that I'm able to go even further now."
Less than a year prior, the 6-foot-5 center back tore his ACL. He landed in Germany for a trial with Nurnberg, entered his first training session, and collided with Timmy Chandler. "It wasn't a tackle, just a slight push and my leg buckled," Gonzalez told Goal.com. Trial over. Season too, possibly.
Both players are now on the roster for the World Cup qualifier against Honduras. A lot has happened in a year.
On July 4, roughly two months ahead of the announced timeline, Gonzalez returned to the field for the Galaxy. Bruce Arena slowly worked him into the lineup, and Gonzalez's rehabilitation coincided with the reigning MLS champion's defense ossifying once more. From 11 points in the opening 13 games, the Galaxy went on to win the MLS Cup. Gonzalez scored the equalizer in a 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo.
"I think [my career] is right back on schedule," Gonzalez told Goal.com. "I think I'm back to where I was, maybe even better than what I was."
Gonzalez estimated that he was only at 90 percent capacity in the MLS Cup final. That extra 10 percent should push him into the country's elite, according to club teammates.
"Omar, he's not just a special player but he's a special person as well," former Galaxy midfielder David Beckham said. "He works hard. He listens. He's a young player with a lot of talent that I hope at some point is going to play for the U.S. national team more regularly, because he deserves it."
"Omar belongs in the national team pool," Arena, who led the United States to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, said. "I'm confident that Omar's a player who can play internationally for the United States."
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann agrees. He called Gonzalez into a three-week January camp and handed the hulking defender the start against Canada in a friendly on Jan. 29. An inexperienced backline kept a shutout in the disappointing 0-0 draw.
Gonzalez would have more international experience were it not for his extended injury absence, according to Klinsmann. Additionally, Gonzalez's involvement in the MLS Cup final ruled him out of the November friendly against Russia, which ended in a 2-2 tie.
"We wanted to have him in the camp last year," Klinsmann said. "But it's really nice to see how serious he takes his job, how he matured, and how he is greedy for the next level. He comes in every training session 100 percent focused, hungry, and he wants to prove a point. This is the type of player we need, everywhere, in every position."
Klinsmann particularly needs that type of player in central defense. In the 2009 Confederations Cup, the center back position was arguably the strongest in the U.S. pool, with the twin towers of Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu helping shut out Spain in the semifinal. From that cycle, only captain Carlos Bocanegra, 33, remains.
Though he cited a lack of playing time as the reason Onyewu missed out on the trip to Honduras, Klinsmann demands more from his center backs than the skill set on offer from DeMerit or Gooch.
"A center back nowadays is not good enough anymore if he just kind of shuts down the forwards from the other team. A center back is a key connector already toward midfield, is a distributor out of the back," Klinsmann said. "Traditionally, 20 years ago, 'Center back, just kill your opponent.' It's not like that anymore today."
Gonzalez, himself a touch gangly on the ball and imprecise in the pass, has tried to learn from others' mistakes.
"It's definitely something I've been working on, and also it comes with experience," Gonzalez told Goal.com. "In the very beginning things are moving pretty fast, you're not as comfortable on the field, you don't want to make mistakes; it's pretty hard to go forward with the ball. Now going into my fifth year I'm more comfortable as a player. Experience-wise I'm a little bit smarter and everything's coming a little bit easier, so playing out of the back is something I can do. I know I can do it."
Los Angeles coughed up early leads to three of its four playoff opponents, so the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year often galloped forward with the Galaxy in desperation mode.
Against (the admittedly negligible pressure from) Canada, Gonzalez completed 57 of his 65 attempted passes, an 88 percent completion rate. These are indications of progress, though it is clearly still a deficiency.
"The friendlies they're going to be playing at the end of the month aren't anything he can't deal with," Arena said.
The key for Gonzalez is proving he can deal with an away CONCACAF venue in the Hexagonal. Can Gonzalez can find his rhythm at the increased tempo of the international game? Will he keep step as Klinsmann choreographs a roster aimed at competing in the World Cup?
Wednesday's match against Honduras should provide the first clue.
"It's just soccer," Gonzalez told Goal.com. "One coach is different than the other, but in the grand scheme of things it's the same things. I'm at a level where I understand the game, I know how to read the game, so whatever he throws at me I think I can pick up pretty quickly."
Gonzalez is ready for this dance.
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