In regards to age, the number thirty has such a loaded connotation. It is viewed by human beings everywhere as some sort of crossroads, some defining moment that is going to decide the trajectory of your next ten years on this earth. For a soccer player, it often means the peak of the career mountain has been reached, and a slow descent down the back slopes is all that is left.
Most players accept this, the wear and tear of the game taking such a toll on both body and mental well-being that a nice stroll to the finish sounds delightful. Occasionally, you’ll find a player at the age of thirty who is filled with a rejuvenated sense of motivation, a player who is going to find a way to set up camp at the summit, or perhaps find a new range to ascend. In the case of Michael Orozco, that’s exactly what we have.
He has had a roller coaster ride of a career, one filled with setbacks, ample criticism, and iconic moments of pure glory.
Raised in Orange, California by Mexican immigrant parents, Orozco was signed by San Luis at the age of 19. After two seasons in the youth system, he launched himself to the senior team where he became a stalwart for the club, making over 100 appearances until his departure in 2013.
In 2007, Orozco was pivotal in helping the United States qualify for the Beijing Olympic Games, making the CONCACAF Best XI for the qualifying tournament. He started all three games in China and played exceptionally well in the first two. In the third match however, Orozco was sent off in just the third minute for an elbow to the chest of Nigeria’s Solomon Okoronkwo. The U.S. lost the match 2-1, and were eliminated from the Olympics. (That was coincidentally the last Olympic match the U.S. played, with the States failing to qualify for the next two competitions in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016.)
Orozco received his first call up to the senior team just a month later, joining the Bob Bradley led camp for World Cup Qualifiers against Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago.
After a brief loan spell in MLS with the Philadelphia Union in 2010, Orozco returned to San Luis, where he propelled himself to new heights as a player in the Mexican league.
The defining moment (thus far) of Orozco’s footballing life came in August of 2012, in what is referred to as the “Aztecazo”. The United States went into Estadio Azteca and defeated Mexico 1-0, thanks to an 80thminute tap in goal from one Michael Orozco, his full name of “Michael Orozco Fiscal” being met with amplified jeers inside a stadium where the United States had never before won a single game. Though it was merely a friendly, the goal lives on as an iconic moment in the heated rivalry between the Americans and El Tri. The fact that a player who is the child of Mexican immigrants scored that goal for the U.S. just adds gasoline to the folklore fire.
A hated man south of the border for the next year while still plying his trade in the country, Orozco won back the love of the Mexican people in October of 2013, when he was instrumental in the United States 3-2 victory over Panama in the final match of the Hexagonal. It was a win that rescued a sorry Mexico side who had done everything in their power to finish in fifth place in the group and disgracefully miss the 2014 World Cup, only to be saved by goals from Orozco, “San Zusi”, and Aron Johansonn. Thanks to the Americans, Mexico were given the ultimate lifeline of backing into a fourth place finish and playing a two-leg, home-and-home qualifier against lowly New Zealand, while the Panamanians were left to soak in the tears of what could have been.
“I was one of the most hated figures in Mexico for my goal in the Aztecazo,” Orozco said with a smile to Mexican soccer writer Tom Marshall following the win over Panama. “But I think things have turned around… Now I’m one of the more liked.”
Though he was left off of Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2014 World Cup roster, Orozco continued to be involved with the U.S. team, his versatility as a defender and utility midfielder looked at as a major asset to the coaching staff. He had moved to Puebla in 2013 before making the switch to Tijuana to join Xolos in 2015, a club that possesses a well-known bond with American players. As a Southern Californian with deep connections to his Mexican roots, Orozco said it had “been a dream” of his to play for Xolos ever since the club gained promotion to the top flight.
Flash forward to 2016, and Orozco’s rather surprising selection to Klinsmann’s squad for the Copa America Centenario. It was a choice that was particularly puzzling to those up to date with Liga MX, with Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez among those left off the U.S. roster, Gonzalez being unanimously viewed as one of the best defenders in the league and winning a championship with Los Tuzos, Orozco much maligned and struggling through a dismal season for Xolos that saw them miss the Clausura playoffs.
When Deandre Yedlin was shown two yellow cards in a bizarre one minute span to start the second half in the final group match against Paraguay (the U.S. clinging to a 1-0 lead in a game they had to win to progress to the quarter-final round), it was Orozco who got the call to enter the match and slot in at right-back. Despite the fact the Americans put forth a heroic display with ten men, staying organized and doing enough to see out the 1-0 result, a couple of poor plays from Orozco were magnified, the player being grilled by fans and pundits alike. Orozco did not see the field again until the eventual third place match, starting and playing 90 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Colombia.
As we approach the autumn of 2016, Orozco faces yet another set of challenges, trying to maintain relevance and win over the haters the only way he can; by playing some of the best soccer of his professional life.
The Xolos of Club Tijuana are currently the cream of the Mexican top flight. They are unbeaten in seven league matches, and have not conceded a single goal in four home games at Estadio Caliente. Orozco has been vital in the defensive prowess displayed by Xolos, becoming a fixture in manager Miguel Herrera’s lineup, holding down the right-back position like his career depended on it.
I had a chance to speak to Orozco after Xolos 1-0 win over Pumas on Friday night, a match where Tijuana again exhibited exceptional defensive organization, Orozco himself registering a handful of highlight reel plays, crunching challenges that lit up the crowd of over 27,000 at Estadio Caliente.
He had a lot to say in a short conversation, and it was interesting how it all tied together.
“We spoke right after the Copa America,” Orozco said of the current Xolos and former Mexico Manager Herrera. “He said that he wanted me to stay with this team, and that I would be a strong piece of what he was trying to do as a coach.”
Orozco went on, without any provocation, to talk about what his performances for Xolos mean for his status with the United States, clearly showing that playing for the national team is something that is firmly planted on his mind.
“I’m happy with how I’m playing right now, and I hope it helps me to get a call in to the national team.”
Orozco briefly addressed the naysayers.
“Some people might not like what they see from me. They might not like me as a player. That’s fine. I’m a defender. My job right now for my club and hopefully for my country is to defend. I’m happy with how that’s going at the moment, and I’m always trying to better myself.”
We discussed the handful of physical plays that had the crowd going wild.
“Those plays keep you motivated,” he said with a facial expression that was somewhere between a ‘I’m pleased with my performance’ type grin and a ‘let’s move onto the next fight’ type gritted-teeth stare. “Our fans are always behind us, 110%, and like you said, plays like those light the crowd up. If you get an opportunity to go in for a slide tackle or chip a player, it’s great for the fans, and great for the team. We’re trying to make the playoffs, and we need these fans with us all the way.”
The chat quickly moved back to the red, white, and blue, as I asked Orozco how he goes about mentally balancing being a starting defender for the first place side in Liga MX (a side where many journalists and pundits did not think he’d be a guaranteed top choice) and fighting for a spot with the United States.
“I think the hard work that I’m putting in for Xolos is what’s gonna get me back to the national team,” Orozco said. “Games like tonight, and the shutouts we’ve had at home all season, those are the things that get me the exposure I need to be called in. Jurgen always has his eye on these games.”
As for his fellow American Xolo, 21 year-old Chula Vista native Paul Arriola…
(Laughing) “He’s a hard worker, man. He deserves it. I hope he gets called in as well.”
Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster for the next two World Cup Qualifiers against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago was released early Sunday. The roster features both Michael Orozco and Paul Arriola.
How Orozco fits in with Klinsmann’s plans for the two games is anyone’s guess. He faces fierce competition for a spot at right-back with two young speedsters, Deandre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta.
For club and country, Orozco is a man on a mission, devoted to proving his worth on the pitch while staying committed to the task of self-betterment.
At the age of thirty, his days as a professional player are far from infinite, which only adds to his motivation in the present moment. He looks a rejuvenated man with Xolos, with as much youthful energy as you’re going to find in a seasoned, veteran defender. He is driven by the desire to help his club reach the playoffs, with the grand goal of helping Xolos lift their second Liga MX title.
He wants to help his country qualify for the World Cup, and rest assured, there’s a personal motive in there as well. That summer extravaganza is less than two years away. As a consummate pro, the tasks at hand are most important, but if the pathway of self-betterment continues to be paved, there’s no reason why Michael Orozco couldn’t make the trip to Russia in the summer of 2018.