Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
CARSON, Calif.– The small scar on Omar Gonzalez’s left knee might be easy to miss on his imposing 6-foot-5 frame, but it offers the Los Angeles Galaxy defender a constant reminder of just how much has changed for him and the Galaxy in the past year.
Tonight Gonzalez will lead the Galaxy into the Western Conference knockout round match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The wild card game is a far cry from where the Galaxy were a year ago at this time, when they were runaway Supporters Shield winners and heavy favorites to lift the MLS Cup.
A year ago at this time, Gonzalez was in the midst of the kind of run players dream of. He was dominating Major League Soccer as the best defender in the league, leading the stingiest defense in league history and preparing to win his first championship.
With everything going perfectly, Gonzalez couldn’t be blamed for starting to look ahead. To start thinking about Europe and making the jump that almost every MLS player dreams of making.
“My head was already in Europe, even before I went there,” Gonzalez admitted.
German Bundesliga club Nuremberg had a loan offer ready last January, all he needed to do was go on a short trial. He had been called in to the U.S. Men’s National Team camp around the same time, but decided to head to Germany to pursue a loan deal (a decision U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann agreed was the right one).
With his European dream so close to being a reality, Gonzalez agreed to jump right into training with Nuremberg even though it wasn’t something he had planned to do so quickly.
“I didn’t really want to train,” Gonzalez said when recounting how Nuremberg coaches asked him to start training on his first full day in Germany. “I just wanted to go over there and meet the guys, meet the coaches, but they insisted. If they put up the money they wanted to see me play and I decided to do it and it turned out the first day I wound up tearing my ACL.”
All it took was a seemingly harmless push from one-time U.S. national team teammate Timmy Chandler during Nuremberg training to lead Gonzalez to plant his leg awkwardly and suffer the first major injury of his career.
“I shouldn’t have trained,” Gonzalez said, with only the slightest tinge of regret in his voice. “I should have waited a couple more days. I should have been smarter about it. I don’t regret going at all. I just regret how everyone handled it. How I trained on the first day when I should have been more vocal about relaxing.”
That decision, and that injury, changed everything for Gonzalez. Instead of playing in the Bundesliga on loan, and potentially staying there on a full transfer, Gonzalez took a painful and uncomfortable flight back from Germany to California to rehab and recover, and set a new course for his career.
Luckily for Gonzalez and the Galaxy, Gonzalez’s rehab went as well as he could have hoped, and saw the 6-foot-5 centerback on the field less than six months after surgery. His comeback came soon after the Galaxy had begun a mid-season rally after struggling badly to start the season. Gonzalez almost seemed to come back too soon from the injury, but he enjoyed a smooth transition back into the Galaxy lineup.
“His rehab was meticulous and he just kept progressing so everything went as well as you could ask for,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “He’s been solid. He’s a little rusty obviously it’s going to take a little time.
“I’d like to believe he will keep progressing and be at his best in November, but he won’t be back to 100 percent until next year.”
Even at 90 to 95 percent, which is where he puts himself at these days, Gonzalez has been a force in the Galaxy defense. Though he has had some issues with regaining his full match fitness, Gonzalez has given the Galaxy the sort of dominant presence they so sorely missed in the first half of the season.
As impressive as his recovery was, it didn’t come quickly enough for Gonzalez to merit a national team call-up, though he did make the provisional roster. Gonzalez admitted to being disappointed at not being a part of the team’s recent World Cup qualifying matches, but he is also realistic about where he stands now.
“I want to be there, but I understand that I’m coming off injury, and I need some time,” Gonzalez said of being the national team. “I also know it was tough to try and come in when the games were so important (in World Cup qualifying in September and October). It’s tough to bring a new guy who hasn’t been in with the coach, who hasn’t been in with he guys.
“I’m still a little bit bummed that I didn’t get called in but it comes with it,” Gonzalez said. “You just have to keep working hard, and for me it’s getting back to where I was (before the injury), and I think even more than that it’s being better than I was.
“I think if I do that, then come the next camp maybe I’ll get called in.”
“There’s no question in my mind that once he’s back to a hundred percent he has to be a player in serious consideration for national team selection,” said Arena, the U.S. national team head coach from 1999 to 2006. “I believe he should have been in the national team selection last year. This year is a different story obviously, coming back from the injury.
“Last year he was probably the best centerback for U.S. Soccer and you need time with those young players when they first get capped it takes a little bit of time,” Arena said. “That learning curve is important and he’s lost that a little bit, which is disappointing.”
Gonzalez’s injury has cost him ground in the race to be the next generation of the U.S. national team defense. Geoff Cameron was ranked below Gonzalez a year ago, but in the time since then Cameron has stormed into the national team set-up and become a starter, all while securing a move to English Premier League side Stoke City. Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler has also emerged as a younger centerback option, having earned a place in recent national team camps.
“I give the guys all the respect in the world who made that progress,” Gonzalez said. “It was there time to go. my time got cut short because of this injury but I’d like to also take those steps. Maybe my path has taken a different route, but I still want to be the best one out there.
“I want to be better than all my peers. I want to be the best,” Gonzalez said. “You want to be the best you can be, the top guy, the guy that people call on for the national team. You want to make an impact and play for your country.
“Geoff Cameron is playing game in and game out and Matt Besler is playing great for Kansas City. He’s one of the staples of their back-line,” Gonzalez said. “It just makes it that much harder. You have to be on your game every day because those guys are doing it.”
Working against Gonzalez is his continuing fight to return to full health. He has had some minor knee issues since returning, including tweaks in both knees. He has been working hard to shake the rust off in time for the playoffs and believes his all-around game has improved throughout the rehabilitation process.
“I feel more confident on the ball, I feel like my passing and touch have gotten better,” Gonzalez said. “I think during my rehab I concentrated a lot on that. Now I just have to get back to where I was.
“What’s been tough is reading the game again, getting back to full speed,” Gonzalez said. “Just reading little plays that can make the biggest difference.
“I think I’ve improved from last year but now it’s just time to get everything right.”
Gonzalez will be hoping to finish the 2012 season on a strong not. Not just to impress U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but also to potentially attract interest again from potential suitors. He will be heading into the final year of his contract with the Galaxy in 2013 and has already made the decision not to re-sign with MLS before that contract expires.
“I’m going to play out this contract and then figure it out from there whether I sign with MLS, sign in Europe or sign in Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “It’s to be determined.
“It’s very exciting because it’s tough being stuck in this three-year contract with two option years,” Gonzalez said. “It’s awful. Guys have felt it before me. Guys like Stuart Holden. You’re just stuck in this contract and it seems like it goes on forever and you can’t wait to get out of it so you can control your own destiny.
“I feel like you just want to get what you’re worth,” Gonzalez added. “That first contract is always a little bit tough because you make progress and we’re getting better and better. It’s going to be fun to see what kind of options there are at the end of that.”
Gonzalez makes it clear that he isn’t spending time thinking about what lies ahead this winter, or about potential transfer moves this off-season. He has a championship to help his team defend, and a scar on his knee that serves as a clear reminder of the dangers of looking too far ahead.
“Last year was a problem because my head was already in Europe,” Gonzalez said. “Now I just have to worry about every single day and live in the moment, and just be happy every day where I am.”