Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
When Jamaica takes the field on Friday night against the U.S. Men’s National Team you can bet that their attack will look to go after one player.
That player is Omar Gonzalez.
Sure, they could also try and test relative U.S. newcomer Brad Evans, but if the ‘Reggae Boyz’ watched the U.S. team’s two most recent friendlies it is tough to picture them not trying to test the LA Galaxy centerback every chance they get.
That would only be natural after Gonzalez struggled both against Belgium and Germany, but the natural question then becomes why would Jurgen Klinsmann stick with Gonzalez?
Klinsmann has stated repeatedly that he wants his defense to gain a rhythm and familiarity, particularly in central defense. Gonzalez has started all six USMNT matches in 2013, with very mixed results. He has enjoyed truly dominant performances, like he did against Mexico and Costa Rica in March qualifiers, but he has also had his share of forgettable outings as well, and his two most recent efforts left plenty to be desired.
You can see why Klinsmann wants to groom Gonzalez. His dominant in the air and he can be the perfect complement to the more technical Matt Besler or Geoff Cameron. That said, he has been making mistakes far too frequently in 2013, for club and country, which has raised questions about whether Klinsmann would be taking a risk starting Gonzalez against Jamaica.
So should Klinsmann take that risk and stick with Gonzalez, or should he turn to Cameron to start alongside Matt Besler?
As much as it might seem like a gamble, the fact is Klinsmann set up a pair of tough challenges in Belgium and Germany to test his team and prepare them for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against lesser opponents. Gonzalez struggled, but part of the point of those tests was to push him and challenge him.
That Gonzalez struggled doesn’t change the fact that his past two World Cup qualifiers were strong efforts. Gonzalez knows he has to do better, but he also knows he has the confidence of his coach, who is giving him a long leash.
Just how long? If Gonzalez struggles against Jamaica there is a very good chance Klinsmann will have to consider a change, and that possibility could be why he went into the most recent camp eager to have Cameron to return to training as a centerback rather than as a right back.
Right now Cameron’s biggest knock is the fact he has a limited number of games played at centerback. In fact, he has played the position just once in this calendar year, during the U.S. team’s 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Honduras in February. He never played centerback at Stoke City and his three other USMNT matches this year have all been at right back.
Gonzalez has been playing centerback all year, has plenty of matches under his belt both in MLS play and international play, and while he has made his mistakes, he has a solid partner in Besler to help cover his weaknesses.
Jamaica could also offer Gonzalez a favorable match-up if Portland Timbers striker Ryan Johnson starts for the ‘Reggae Boyz’. Johnson is a physical forward who Gonzalez is well-equipped to handle and that reality might even force Jamaica to consider starting speedy Vancouver Whitecaps striker Darren Mattocks as a change-of-pace option.
Whoever starts for Jamaica at forward will likely be someone Gonzalez has experience dealing with, which should give him some confidence, especially playing behind the pairing of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who are well-equipped to shut down the passing lanes for Jamaica’s midfield. If they can succeed at smothering the middle of the field, and Jamaica is forced to work wide and pump long balls to their forwards, that will very much play into Gonzalez’s strengths.
Could Klinsmann consider playing Gonzalez and Cameron together as he did vs. Honduras? That is possible, but it is tough to envision Matt Besler not getting the nod. He offers a complete tandem when paired with Gonzalez than Cameron does. Besler is a more natural centerback who reads the game better at the position and is quicker.
Clarence Goodson is another player who shouldn’t be ruled out altogether. He started for the U.S. in Kingston last September, and while he still feels like he’s the fourth option among the four centerbacks, he does have experience and could slide in if things get out of hand on Friday.
It will be up to Gonzalez (and Besler) to make sure that doesn’t happen. Gonzalez had two friendlies to work out the kinks, and test himself against some top-level competition, but now the matches mean much more and any mistakes he makes in the coming three weeks won’t just be written off as part of the learning process.
If Gonzalez seizes the moment and rattles off three great games, he will take a major step toward solidifying his place as a regular starting USMNT centerback with a year to go before the World Cup. If he struggles, he could lose his starting place and there is no guarantee he will get it back.
Which centerback tandem would you start if you were Jurgen Klinsmann? Cast your vote here: