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re: For those with ESPN insider and a penchant for bending the rules... (Posted on 12/3/12 at 3:05 pm to Tennessee Jed)
CARSON, Calif. -- If timing really is everything, then Omar Gonzalez couldn't have picked a better moment to turn in the finest performance of his promising young career.
With national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann watching from a Home Depot Center suite, the 6-foot-5 L.A. Galaxy defender dominated Saturday's MLS Cup final against Houston, heading home a game-changing goal and taking MVP honors in the 3-1 win in which Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane also scored for the hosts.
What Gonzalez also showed on Saturday is that he's ready to make a serious run at a major role with the U.S. national team.
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"From a national team perspective, that back line for Klinsmann is unsettled and undecided, and to be quite honest, individual and collective performances from that back four have not been stellar," former national team center back and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas told Insider on Sunday. "So there's a tremendous opportunity for Omar, and I think he recognizes that now he has to take hold of it if and when that call comes, and I certainly think it will come."
It will undoubtedly come, when six weeks from now Klinsmann assembles a mostly MLS-based roster for the squad's annual January camp. The only question is whether Gonzalez, 24, will be able to convince the coach that he deserves to stick around when the first-string squad arrives in Miami before the Yanks begin the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup on Feb. 6 in Honduras.
You have to like his chances.
Although Klinsmann has never called the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year to his first-choice squad (Gonzalez made the January roster this year but instead went on loan to Bundesliga club Nurnberg), the U.S. boss has been impressed by the way Gonzalez rebounded from the torn ACL he suffered early in his stay in Germany. That it took Gonzalez only six months to return to the Galaxy lineup says plenty about his desire, a quality that is paramount to Klinsmann's philosophy.
After L.A. retained its title -- largely due to Gonzalez -- none other than David Beckham lavished his young teammate's work ethic with praise.
"Omar is not just a special player, but he's a special person as well," Beckham said. "He works hard. He listens. He's a young player with a lot of talent that I hope at some point is going to play for the U.S. national team more regularly, because he deserves it."
But despite Beckham's words, some have questioned how suited Gonzalez's game is to Klinsmann's on-field plan.
It's no secret that the German prefers defenders who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, who can play out of pressure and start the attack on the ground. While the Maryland product has improved his technical ability in each of his four seasons as a pro, it's still not the strongest part of his game. And, given the higher pace at the international level, Gonzalez's quickness has been another concern to some, if not to Lalas.
"When it comes to facing smaller, faster guys that are moving around and pulling him out of position, that's where his mental ability is going to be crucial to not putting himself in positions where he is exposed," Lalas said. "That's something that comes with time. I want to see him against competition different than he sees in MLS. That's the only way you get better."
Gonzalez has shown well against better caliber players in limited action. He held his own in the two U.S. caps he earned under ex-coach Bob Bradley -- the first versus Brazil -- and has performed well for the Galaxy in high-profile friendlies against European powerhouses such as Real Madrid and AC Milan.
Still, throwing him straight into the Hexagonal in early 2013 does carry risks. But then again Klinsmann wasn't shy about promoting Geoff Cameron last summer; after making his qualifying debut in a road qualifier in Guatemala in June, Cameron quickly locked down a starting job in the heart of the Yanks' defense.
Bank on Gonzalez joining Cameron there at some point next year. U.S. depth at center back is woefully thin, and at 33, veteran Carlos Bocanegra is starting to show signs of slowing down. Not only has the U.S. captain -- who is still a month away from returning from the torn leg muscle he sustained in last month's 2-2 draw in Russia -- been the Americans' most consistent center back since 2006, with 14 career goals (most on them on headers) he's a legitimate offensive threat. On Saturday at least, Gonzalez looked like the closest thing to his heir apparent in the national team pool.
"Omar is a player that can play internationally for the United States," former U.S. coach Bruce Arena said after Gonzalez's star turn.
"He knows how to win, and he knows how to win under the spotlight," Lalas said, referencing Gonzalez's career with the Galaxy so far. "I think his personality and character are pros, and they're reasons to believe that he would grab hold of the opportunity with the national team.
"But until we actually see him on that stage, we're not going to know."
Either way, expect to find out soon enough.