Omar Gonzalez had his terms. They were a sad thing in the end.
Over seven years with the LA Galaxy, Gonzalez’s career arc more closely resembled an erratic heartbeat than a plane’s takeoff pattern. He was the ball-playing center back the USMNT had always coveted. Then he was the highly touted ingenue with 10 years of national team ahead. Then he was the defender who tracked too many runners. Then he was the liability. Then he was in Mexico.
As all this happened, Gonzalez’s contract exploded. In the offseason after the 2013 season, when Gonzalez appeared to be stepping into some new defensive dawn, the Galaxy made him the richest defender in the league at the time. In the span of months his salary figure leaped from $282,000 to $1.25 million. A DP defender for the masses.
Whether it was expectation or complacency or something darker, Gonzalez’s game atrophied under the weight of his new contract. His 2014 was fine in bursts, but by the end of the 2015 season, when he lost his DP status via a TAM rule that might as well be called The Omar Gonzalez Rule, he’d patently regressed. It was right there, in plain sight, as he slept on runners and stepped beyond midfielders and adventured into too many traps.
In light of his decline, the Galaxy ultimately came up with an offseason offer, but for Gonzalez one imagines they looked like walking papers: take a 50 percent pay cut. Gonzalez still would’ve been paid handsomely – $500K is nothing to scoff at – but Pachuca called. Whether Gonzalez would’ve been similarly tempted by Liga MX had the salary slash never been on the table, I suppose we may never know. But that’s moot now.
Some say it was the 2014 World Cup that broke him. Others that he never had the competition in LA, that his job was never in doubt, that his status as an automatic starter grated on his edge and smoothed it into something complacent. There was even talk that his loss of DP title sapped him, pulling out of him that which made him such a target in the first place.
If you stepped into a time machine today, traveled back to late December 2015 and surveyed Galaxy fans about Gonzalez’s move to Liga MX and Pachuca, you’d find this unsettling blend of relief and nostalgia. Remember when Gonzalez was an MLS Cup MVP? And remember when he lost his nerve?
The Galaxy used Omar Money to sign Jelle Van Damme, Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong. On the carousel turned.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Gonzalez’s funeral. He climbed out of the hearse.
Since joining Pachuca Gonzalez has never been better at 27. Never. He’s all but stamped out his defensive wanderlust. He is a port of call in the storm, using his central defensive partner as a ballast when the sheets of rain are thick. He has found recovery speed when he’s too far outside his walls. He rarely is these days, anyway.
It took him two weeks to earn a starting spot on one of Mexico’s strongest teams, less than two more to earn his first shutout and less than a month before scoring his first goal.
Since January Gonzalez has played nearly 1,800 minutes of soccer for Pachuca. The club finished second in the Liga MX table this spring, qualified easily for the end-of-season playoff and mounted a furious run. Pachuca knocked out Santos Laguna and then dealt with Leon to earn a spot in the final later this month. Pachuca is two legs away from winning the Clausura with Gonzalez leading the defensive line. And Gonzalez gets to do part of it in Monterrey, where he has family.
It was in the center of all this that Gonzalez, peering over the backyard fence into Jurgen Klinsmann’s party, was not delivered an invitation. He did not make the Copa America roster.
The discussion around the patent snubs of Klinsmann’s Copa America roster largely swirled around his decision to leave off Jordan Morris in favor of the maligned Chris Wondolowski, whose national team form never seems to mirror his heat in MLS. There are reasons for the publicity. Morris, who is on a goal-scoring tear of late, is the name of now. Gonzalez is the name of yesterday, his form shaded by another league and another set of teammates. Who knows if that form is reliable, you can almost hear Klinsmann ask himself.
In the end Klinsmann espouses a style of roster management that would not be unfamiliar to Henry Kissinger and his Realpolitik acolytes of the Cold War era. Their ultimate argument was that America had outgrown the high-minded moralism and optimism of Wilsonian foreign policy. The world was a harder place than that, and so we must meet it with the cold steel of reality. There is no room for lofty ideals when your political vision is teetering on anarchic dissolution.
Klinsmann may have rode in on waves of Wilsonian sentiment – we will take beautiful soccer to the masses because we can be a beacon for it – but he is a Cold War era politician. He plays three defensive midfielders against inferior opponents, starts defenders in the midfield, deploys a box-to-box midfielder as the creative spark, wants back-to-goal forward play out of every striker regardless of skill set, shuffles lineups based on defensive utility rather than creative impetus.
This is Realpolitik. He is talking to us through his deployments, telling us that he does not believe in high-mindedness when there are trenches to be dug. And perhaps that he does not believe the U.S. has the horses to play in the way he wants. Whatever that style may be.
His roster choices follow suit. He favors that which is known over all else, which can help explain why Gonzalez, whose form at Pachuca I don’t think Klinsmann trusts, was left off the roster essentially for Michael Orozco, who’s never been particularly good for the national team. But he scored at the Azteca and has been with Klinsmann for longer. The practicality of Realpolitik in action. With Klinsmann it trumps the idealism of an Omar Gonzalez reclamation project each and every day of the week.
Gonzalez provided him some rope for the decision with a shaky 66 minutes against Guatemala in March. But to level all the fire at Gonzalez for one of the poorest team-wide performances in recent memory looks like picking one man out of a lineup as the guiltiest of equal thieves. Orozco was just as bad. He is here. Gonzalez is not.
I feel for Gonzalez. His omission is easily the most troubling, far outpacing Morris and whoever else. I think even addled minds can argue Wondo over Morris. I don’t think the same can be said for whoever elbowed Gonzalez out of the final discussion. The center back position for the USMNT is thin and desperately awaiting the moment Matt Miazga becomes 90-minute ready for Big Teams. Until then, there is a gap you struggle to envision Steve Birnbaum and John Brooks and Michael Orozco filling.
Gonzalez, though, is the Great Unknown. Over the last four months he has openly flouted his brutal calendar 2015 and molted into something else. Whether Klinsmann sees that or not, Gonzalez might well be the best American center back of the moment. Despite everything, he will be watching the Copa America with the rest of us.