LA Galaxy and U.S. national team defender Omar Gonzalez is facing huge expectations on club and country fronts, after signing a DP deal as the World Cup beckons (Ted S. Warren/AP)
With the whole world at their feet, David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan didn’t just sign with the L.A. Galaxy. They signed again.
“It’s not a bad place to live is it, Hollywood,” Keane asked rhetorically last winter, shortly after inking his two-year extension
Omar Gonzalez concurs. Los Angeles is more than a place to live. It’s a lifestyle – one that has played a key role in shaping a career about to take off. And as the demands and expectations surrounding him steadily increase, L.A. remains an outlet and an inspiration.
“I think it’s easy to not be so stressed there,” Gonzalez said. “Say you lose a game, like we did against New England. -- the 5-0 game [in June]. It’s easy to go back to L.A. and quickly forget about it and focus on the next one. For me, somehow just being in that area, you forget about things and move on.”
Gonzalez, 25, was born and raised in Dallas and then spent three seasons at the University of Maryland. Southern California was relatively unfamiliar territory when he was drafted by the Galaxy in 2009. Now he draws strength from it. L.A. smooths out the rough edges. It puts things in perspective and sharpens his focus.
By the time Gonzalez faced his own career crossroads this spring, he understood why his famous teammates opted to stay.
“I definitely had options in Mexico. There were a ton of teams after the Mexico game, the [0-0 World Cup qualifier] at Azteca. There were options before that, but then that kind of boosted it even more,” Gonzalez told SI.com. “There were some teams from the EPL that were interested and Germany as well. The way I was thinking about it for a while was that I’ve done a lot here in MLS and maybe it was time to go.”
But there were unknowns to consider.
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“Things overseas can change quickly,” he said. Coaches come and go. A club’s commitment can be fickle. Cultural issues might make the long hours off the field feel like a chore. “There are plenty of players who go over there from the U.S. and are dealing with those kind of struggles."
So when U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann expressed his support for a contract renewal with the Galaxy, that was all Gonzalez needed to hear. Talks escalated. L.A.’s pursuit of Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard had fallen through and a Designated Player spot remained unused. Over the summer, MLS executive VP Todd Durbin, club president Chris Klein and coach Bruce Arena took the defender and his agent to lunch at Petros, a restaurant serving "Hellenic-California cuisine" in Manhattan Beach.
“They told me how important I am to the league. It made me feel really special and that I was really wanted here,” Gonzalez said.
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In August, he signed an historic deal that will pay him around $1.4 million per season for three years, making Gonzalez the richest defender in MLS history by far. He’ll be staying in L.A.
“Every year in this league I feel like I’ve been getting better. I’ve been learning more. I’ve been challenged. My decision was that I love it here. I love everyone in the organization. I love living in L.A.,” Gonzalez said.
“I think there’s definitely a correlation between being happy off the field and it translating to good play. I think you have to find that, because if you go somewhere just for the money but life outside of where you work for three hours sucks, you’re going to be miserable. So staying here in L.A., I made friends there. You can go out and ride your bike whenever you want, just wear shorts and a T-shirt. The weather’s great. It’s always nice to visit these other cities but I get over them pretty quickly and I’m always excited to get back home.”
He’s become a foodie. The pursuit of the perfect dish, either at a new restaurant or in his kitchen at home, has evolved into a productive way to channel his energy and ambition off the field. Having those places of physical and emotional refuge has helped fuel the player he’s become – an MLS defender of the year, an MLS Cup MVP and a U.S. regular. And they’re going to be increasingly important going forward.
“He’s definitely wired differently. A lot of times when we’re home resting, he’s out trying some new experience or adventure. He’s hiking or out buying something new,” Donovan told SI.com. “He does a lot of different things than most soccer players and he enjoys life. When it comes time to be serious and professional he is, but along the way he’s enjoying himself and I think that’s when he plays his best.”
Next year, 2014, will be the biggest of Gonzalez’ career. And it starts early. This week, in fact. L.A.’s early elimination from the MLS Cup playoffs left Gonzalez available for selection to the U.S. squad that will play Scotland (Friday) and Austria (Nov. 19) in what Klinsmann is calling “World Cup preparation games.”
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Gonzalez has been capped only 14 times, yet he’s got a very good shot of starting in Brazil -- if he can hold off the likes of Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson, Michael Orozco and John Brooks. Gonzalez may hit 20 caps by the time the World Cup kicks off. Eddie Pope (23 caps in 1998) and Jimmy Conrad (16 in 2006) are the only other MLS-based central defenders with comparable international experience who started for the U.S. at a World Cup.
The pressure to earn that role will be internal. If he does, the pressure to perform will come from all sides.
“Omar’s a confident guy. He’s fearless. Being in big games, stepping into the national team, he isn’t afraid of it.” veteran Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said. “He had no fear playing for us, never hit the traditional rookie wall. He doesn’t think too much about the big moment. He’s won MLS Cups. He’s now played in big qualifiers. He’s always risen to the occasion and I wouldn’t suspect anything will be different at the World Cup.”
Gonzalez will face scrutiny on the domestic front as well. As the Galaxy look to rebound from a disappointing 2013 campaign, his performances now will be assessed through the “highest paid defender in MLS history, who else could the Galaxy have signed as a DP?” lense. Mistakes will be magnified, and there may be reduced sympathy among fans and pundits for the typical ups and downs all players experience. Gonzalez has entered uncharted waters for an American defender.
He got a taste of it this season, and Arena said he hoped Gonzalez has learned from the experience.
“He had a few injuries. I think the national team call-ups have been challenging for him. It’s hurt his continuity with our team, as well as with the national team. Those are things that happen with young players … trying to balance their club career and their international career,” Arena said. “I think he’s settled in and he’s using his experiences to try to get better as a player and a person.”
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Gonzalez is confident he’s equipped. His athletic ability isn’t in question. The 6-5 center back can dominate a penalty area but has range that belies his size. His increasing comfort with the ball at his feet, not mention his ability to organize a defense, was evident in the September shutout of Mexico at Crew Stadium, where Gonzalez and Goodson maintained their composure under a first-half siege.
Gonzalez said he was so tense during the match that his arms were cramping up once it ended. But he had the strength to chug a bottle of beer while surrounded by teammates moments after qualification was ensured. It’s an iconic image from this year’s Hexagonal, and a sign that Gonzalez will continue to search for fun, balance and perspective as the biggest games of his life approach.
“I just have to continue what I’ve been doing. I may be making more than other defenders in the league, but that kind of stuff doesn’t cross my mind. I don’t think I have a big head and hopefully guys don’t think that about me. It’s something I can’t worry about. The saying I like to live by is, ‘Don’t let what you can’t control consume you,’” Gonzalez said, adding that he’s aware of criticism from the press and the public when it comes his way. “There’s little things I do here and there, when I start thinking about those things, that I just try to push them out and just do something else to clear my mind.”
Dunivant said that Gonzalez genuinely “fits in” in L.A. He’s easy going but invested in the moment. He works and plays hard, but doesn’t obsess over consequences. He takes it all in.
“He loves the big life,” Dunivant said.
The big life is coming, and Gonzalez said he’s ready.
“You’d like to think, ‘OK, I’m turning the corner and everything’s going to be great from here on out,” he said. “But every day is different, so you just have to be ready to give your best and hopefully everything has a good outcome.”