Major League Soccer is weak. Players need to break outside of their comfort zones. Players need to venture to foreign leagues and challenge themselves. Those players will become stronger. The experience they will gain will make them fierce. The United States Men’s National Team will be better as a result.
Ok. I just unplugged my direct feed from Jurgen Klinsmann’s brain.
Say what you will about our fearless leader regarding his quirkiness, his pomp, and his propensity to say the most ludicrous things at the most inopportune moments. In regards to players venturing outside of their comfort zones, I completely agree with him.
This past winter, USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez made the switch from MLS to Liga MX, being transferred from the Los Angeles Galaxy to Pachuca. It was looked at as a bold move by all parties. The Galaxy basically considered Gonzalez, long one of their prime prospects and most beloved stars, to be surplus to requirements. The franchise made it clear to everyone that they were more interested in high-priced European imports that were well past their prime. Pachuca were making a cultural statement with the signing, embracing a man who had arguably the best game of his entire career against the Mexican national team at Estadio Azteca back in March of 2013. The club went as far as having Gonzalez dress in a full Darth Vader costume when he was unveiled to Los Tuzos media and fans. However, nobody was taking more of a risk than Gonzalez himself with the move south of the border.
As a U.S. fan, I never fully trusted Gonzalez as a center-back. Apart from that incredible night at Azteca, (a night when he and Matt Besler might as well have been named Maldini and Nesta) he always looked prone to a costly mistake, possessing a ditsy nature that would surely damage a winning effort at any moment. I felt he was coddled as well, constantly being labeled by Southern California and national media alike as “one of the best defenders in MLS” soon after he first stepped foot on a pitch. It never seemed like he had to earn anything. It was like it was all fed to him on a silver soccer spoon.
When I first heard news of the transfer in December, my perception of Gonzalez instantly changed. He was taking on a new challenge, showing a level of courage that must have made Jurgen Klinsmann smile. Then came the most mind boggling part of all. Gonzalez had an outstanding debut season, and was one of the best defenders in the entire league, helping to anchor a Pachuca back-line that was positioned in front of a 43 year-old goalkeeper (Conejo Perez).
Pachuca finished the regular season in 2nd place, and bolted through the liguilla and into this past week’s championship showdown with a heavily favored Monterrey side, the only club with a superior regular season record. After winning the first leg at home 1-0, Pachuca ventured to Nuevo Leon on Sunday night with a chance to pull off one of the biggest final upsets in recent memory, and by golly were they ever up against it.
Conejo Perez was in super human form, as Monterrey out-possessed, out-shot, and quite simply outplayed Pachuca. With the aggregate level at 1-1 in the 73rd minute, Pachuca’s Aquivaldo Mosquera was shown a straight red for basically rugby tackling Monterrey goalscorer Dorlan Pabon in a last man situation. Now down to 10 men, with the odds stacked against them, Pachuca looked like they were desperate to hold on for dear life all the way to the 120 minute mark, and steal the championship on penalties.
Stoppage time hit, and Monterrey continued their push, Gonzalez seemingly being joined by every one of his Pachuca teammates, Los Tuzos essentially playing with nine defenders. Then came the most shocking moment of the entire season. After not registering a shot on goal the entire match, Pachuca broke out on a counter and possessed in the final third for just a few seconds, before a cross was whipped in toward the top of the six, and right onto the skull of Victor Guzman. His last gasp header – one of the last touches of the season – gave Los Tuzos the most improbable of wins.
Omar Gonzalez danced on the podium (hilariously paying homage to the “Running Man Challenge”), as he became just the second American player all-time to hold both a Liga MX and MLS championship winners medal. There was no more Darth Vader. Gonzalez will forever be known as the Hidalgo Jedi, using the light side of the force to help guide Pachuca to a Liga MX title just over five months after his arrival.
Now let’s go back to that Jurgen Klinsmann sentiment. Did Gonzalez break out of his comfort zone? Yes. Did he take on a new challenge and battle with superior competition to that of MLS? Yes. Did he up his game, play with more grit, and enhance the mental side of soccer that is vital for a center-back? Yes, yes, and yes. Is he currently in the best form of his entire life as a footballer? I can’t answer this one for certain, but I’m going to go out on a Mexican-American limb and say, yes. A few well respected colleagues of mine who make their living covering Liga MX (none of whom are Pachuca fans) said without a shadow of a doubt that Gonzalez should make the 2016 Clausura Best-XI. That’s how good he was this season.
And yet after all this, Omar Gonzalez will not be a part of the United States squad for the Copa America Centenario. It makes next to no sense, and might leave you wondering what the hell is really going on in Klinsmann’s head. The man has been accused of hypocrisy before, but this takes it to another level. Adding even more gasoline to the fire of confusion is the fact that Edgar Castillo, the Monterrey defender who inexcusably and lackadaisically missed his mark in the 93rd minute, falling asleep momentarily (in a fashion I used to associate, way back when, with one Omar Gonzalez) and allowing Victor Guzman to easily drift around him and waltz into the aerial attempt that resulted in the winning goal… that man will be on the USMNT Copa America roster, and will likely see playing time against the likes of Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay.
It is all so mysterious and slightly insulting, but then again, what should we really expect from Klinsmann at this point? Have a nice summer Omar. Enjoy the Copa from a cozy cabana in Cabo, and get ready to make another run at it in the 2016 Apertura. Your peers in and around Liga MX have a lot of respect for you. It would be nice if our national team manager did as well.