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Gonzalez has a bright U.S. future

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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Omar Gonzalez has had plenty of memorable moments in his young soccer career.

From winning an NCAA title, to being named MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009, but Gonzalez will be hard-pressed to match the unforgettable week he recently experienced.

During the course of one eight-day span that ended last weekend, Gonzalez played in a friendly against Real Madrid, earned his first U.S. national team cap as a starter against Brazil, then helped shutout a star-studded New York Red Bulls squad with his Los Angeles Galaxy.

Top five young American defenders Omar Gonzalez is just one of the top five young American defenders pushing for a spot at the World Cup in Brazil.

Not a bad week for a 21-year-old who was in college just two years earlier.

Rather than be overwhelmed, Gonzalez stood up to the series of challenges and more than held his own. He performed admirably against Brazil, on a day when the Brazilians were in dominant form, and Gonzalez helped neutralize the Red Bulls strike force of Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel.

“What a crazy, exciting week it’s been for me, and I think I got a little taste of what it can be like in the future for me,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve just been having fun with it.”

“It’s definitely boosted my confidence because I think, in all these games, I’ve played pretty well,” Gonzalez said. “It’s always good knowing that you can play well in those games, and then come into MLS games and play with more confidence.”

Gonzalez is a 6-foot-5 central defender who represents the future of the national team‘s center back position. At a time when several quality prospects are just beginning the climb through the professional soccer-national team pipeline, Gonzalez represents the best of the coming crop of prospects expected to eventually replace the aging generation that includes the likes of Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 MLS Draft, Gonzalez adapted quickly to life in MLS as a starter for the Galaxy, helping the team reach the MLS Cup Final. He had his growing pains, but benefited from playing on a strong team and playing alongside veteran defender and U.S. World Cup veteran Gregg Berhalter.

MLS: June 23-25

 
Thursday, June 23
Home Road
Seattle 4-2 New York Recap
Saturday, June 25
Home Road
DC United 2-2 Houston Recap
San Jose 0-0 LA Galaxy Recap
Philadelphia 3-2 Chivas USA Recap
FC Dallas 4-0 Portland Recap
Sporting KC 2-1 Vancouver Recap
Real Salt Lake 3-1 Toronto Recap
Sunday, June 26
Home Road
Chicago 1-1 New York  
Seattle 2-1 New England Recap
Columbus 4-1 Colorado  
MLS Scores | Table | Fixtures
 

“The biggest thing he had to adjust to was the day-to-day ability to come to work and understand the mentality you need and the concentration level you need,” Los Angeles Galaxy assistant Dave Sarachan. “Early on, he had his moments where the lights went out. For him, it’s ‘Can you stay in it mentally for 90 minutes?’

“Sometimes I tend to get complacent toward the ends games, and my mind just wanders,” Gonzalez admitted. “My teammates around that time always get me back in the game. I think that was the biggest challenge for me.”

Gonzalez has benefited early in his career from playing alongside quality on-field defensive leaders. At Maryland, Gonzalez played alongside currently Galaxy teammate A.J. De La Garza, a four-year starter and captain. With the Galaxy, Gonzalez benefited from the presence of Berhalter.

“Berhalter is really the leader of that back group, so (Gonzalez) listens to Gregg quite a bit,” Sarachan said. “When Gregg was out for us injured, Omar was the guy who needed to assume the position. He’s not quite there yet, feeling that comfortable about it, but that just comes with experience and growth.”

Gonzalez still needs to grow as a leader, but his skill set as a defender is already impressive at a young age and U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard has already called him the best young defender in the national team pool.

Gonzalez is dominant in the air, faster over long distances than most realize and he reads the game very well. Gonzalez has already established himself as one of the most imposing defenders in the league and will challenge for MLS Defender of the Year honors as he heads up the stingiest defense in the league.

As impressive as he is already in just his second year as a pro, Gonzalez isn’t quite the finished product yet. He still has trouble at times with speedy players as his lack of quickness in tight spaces can be exposed, but the more Gonzalez gains experience, the more he can work on positioning and putting himself in good spots to avoid danger.

“His distribution out of the back, I’m talking about short-ranging passing and getting the ball off his feet quickly, are things he had to work on. I do think he’s improving.”

“On the international level, he still has to learn the speed of play there, the mentality, the movement, the quick turnovers and transitions,” Sarachan said. “That comes with experience and it was a great learning experience for him the other night (against Brazil).”

Gonzalez’s performance in his national team debut, along with the unforgettable week he just went through, bodes well for what is shaping up to be one of the most promising career of any young American soccer player. In other words, Gonzalez might have to start getting used to weeks like the one he just experienced.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.

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