USMNT preps for important World Cup, Olympic qualifying
1:42 | Planet Futbol
USMNT preps for important World Cup, Olympic qualifying
Friday March 25th, 2016

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GUATEMALA CITY — It was, in hindsight, one of the more gloriously ludicrous moments in recent U.S. soccer history. When Omar Gonzalez signed with Mexican club Pachuca in December, during the global Star Wars mania, he appeared for his presentation wearing a full Darth Vader costume—replete with a mask and light saber—before his dramatic reveal to the masses.

The video went viral, and Gonzalez—who does look a lot like the Star Wars actor Adam Driver—had a fun story to tell.

“I had just signed my contract about 10 or 15 minutes before,” Gonzalez said, “and Jesús Martínez, the owner, comes up to me and says, ‘We’ve got this idea. We want you to come out as Darth Vader.’ Apparently they got the idea the night before, and they called Disney to see if it was O.K. … They showed it all over the world, so that was pretty cool. The underlying story here is I’m having fun, I’m happy, I’m playing well and I’m back with the national team.”

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He’s right. Though Gonzalez played well at World Cup 2014, starting the final two games against Germany and Belgium, his performance dipped in 2015 for the LA Galaxy and he wasn’t even called up for the USA-Mexico CONCACAF Cup last October.

What’s more, MLS salary cap and Designated Player rules conspired to put the squeeze on Gonzalez after seven seasons with LA, leading to his Pachuca move.

Gonzalez said the Galaxy told him he had to take a 50% pay cut and sign a new contract or the team couldn’t keep him.

“It was a lot of different factors,” Gonzalez said here ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Guatemala (10 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports, NBC Universo). “First of all there was the contract issue. The Galaxy said either you take a pay cut or you’re out. I didn’t want to take a pay cut … It would have been a big lifestyle change. Also, Liga MX is an incredible league. It’s competitive. The level is very high.”

When we talk in soccer about “development,” everyone assumes you’re talking about teenagers, prospects, young players. But the 27-year-old Gonzalez makes a great point: Development shouldn’t stop once you’ve been a pro for a few years. You should always be growing and improving, and leaving his comfort zone in L.A. for Pachuca has given Gonzalez the boost to get better again.

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He also argues that for him, at least, playing in Mexico has advantages over being in MLS.

“For me, I think it’s more competitive [in Mexico],” Gonzalez said. “Not to say that MLS is an easy league, but it’s just a different challenge for me. In Mexico, every team has a talented attacking group … I’ve seen the players in MLS now for seven years, so I’ve kind of got a good idea of what they’re bringing to the table and how to go about defending them.

“And now I don’t know anything really about this league and about the players, so I have to be alert, I have to be ready game in and game out. And to be honest, I never felt threatened for my spot at the Galaxy. I was going to play every single game no matter what. And now there’s some guys behind me [at Pachuca] who could step in and take my spot if I don’t have a good game.”

Gonzalez has been a regular starter for Pachuca, which sits in second place in the Mexican Clausura. He hasn’t had any issues settling in with his new club, and his form has been on a big upswing from the latter half of 2015. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he has been keeping a close eye on Gonzalez both from watching his games and getting reports from U.S. scouts, and the coach argued Gonzalez has earned the right to be back in the U.S. fold and competing for a starting spot this week.

“[The scouts] came back and said, ‘He’s looking good, he’s strong, he’s determined, he’s aggressive, he looks confident, he wants to go for the ball in the midfield,’” Klinsmann said here. “I read his interviews as well and said, ‘O.K., that’s interesting.’ So it seems to be a very good positive move for him, and he confirms it these couple of days [in U.S. camp].”

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The style of the Mexican league has brought new challenges, Gonzalez said, and reinvigorated him.

“There’s a lot more possession,” he said. “The league is very physical. If you go down there and play, you definitely realize guys go in hard. There’s a lot of body-to-body, and it’s very competitive. But as a defender, I think there’s more attacking quality and more possession from the other team. So you really have to move well as a group.”

Gonzalez said his family has adjusted well to living in Mexico and doesn’t miss Los Angeles. In fact, he argued, the move has made him a better version of himself as a player.

“If I look back on the time of the [CONCACAF Cup], was I at my best? No,” he said. “I think right now I’m playing up there near my best, and I think I still have more to give. If I continue to be consistent with my club at Pachuca, then hopefully I can have an influence on this [U.S.] team. It’s every player’s dream to step out on the field representing your country.”

You might even say that for Gonzalez the Force is strong these days. Development doesn’t stop just because you’re 27 years old.

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