Eight by Eight“s Robert Kehoe speaks to the U.S. international about college, the World Cup, and everything in between
At just twenty-six years old, Omar Gonzalez has become a defensive anchor for both the LA Galaxy and the United States. He notched his first international goal in last week’s Gold Cup quarterfinal rout against Cuba, setting up tonight’s semifinal match with Jamaica. He recently spoke with Eight by Eight’s Robert L. Kehoe III about his journey from the college ranks, to the World Cup, and everything in between.
Robert L. Kehoe III (RK): So often commentators make a lot of their definition of a given player, but how would you define yourself?
Omar Gonzalez (OG): I think I’m a good defender who reads the game very well, and maybe because I’m bigger people think I’m slow, but I think I’m a lot faster than people give me credit for. Mostly I think I’m a winner who is always looking for new challenges, and that’s been the case in all the teams I’ve played on where I’ve been fortunate to win a lot of championships.
RK: Speaking of challenges, I recently ran into one of your former college teammates who said there was a time when he and some other upperclassman had to confront you about maximizing your potential. Do you remember that story, and if so, do you think it was a defining moment for you?
OG: Yeah definitely. I think we were in a team meeting and three of the older guys called me out and just spoke the truth about what they thought I could accomplish at Maryland, in MLS, with the national team, and maybe even in Europe. It was a situation where I realized if these guys believe in me and think I can go that far I should really strive to get there.
RK: At the time did you believe it?
OG: I knew that I would always have the opportunity to play pro, but this was a conversation that helped me realize I needed to grab hold of that opportunity. That’s one of the reasons I think college was so good for me, because I was able to experience some of those growing pains in a safe environment, where there’s more space for you to grow as a person. In a pro system it’s a business where everyone’s looking out for themselves, so you don’t have the same balance of soccer and academics that gives you a little more perspective.
RK: Do you think the college game still has a place in the future of American development, especially with the growth of the pro academy system and all that goes with it? And also, what did your experience at Maryland teach you that you couldn’t have learned anywhere else?
OG: Yeah, I always think there will be a place for college players, especially those who aren’t fully developed and need a couple more years to grow as a person and a player (I got a lot stronger and faster). But for the players who are ready, it’s great that there are more opportunities to be in a professional environment and play year round.
RK: So Maryland was good for you, along with Robbie Rodgers and AJ DeLaGarza who obviously play for the Galaxy as well. In the case of AJ, the two of you have been playing together in the back for almost a decade now, have won a NCAA championships and three MLS Cups. Not many players around the world could point to that kind of partnership, so how has that relationship grown and what does it mean to you?
OG: Yeah, I think when we’re put together in the center [Delagarza will often be positioned as an outside back] we’ve only lost like nine out of fifty matches … something crazy like that. So we obviously have great chemistry, and I have so much trust in his effort and tenacity. He’s also really quick, so I know if I get beat that he’s able to cover for me. But mostly there’s an underlying friendship that runs very deep.
RK: On that note, both of you have had a lot going on in the last year, with the birth of your first child, and the tragic loss of AJ’s son Luca just days after he was born. How has all this played out, and how is AJ doing?
OG: It’s definitely brought us closer together, and he has been so strong through it all, using soccer as a healthy escape from the sadness of losing Luca. But after going through all that sorrow they’re expecting a little girl later this year, so I’m really happy for him.
RK: Shifting our focus to the national team, what was it like to play in Brazil 2014?
OG: The experience for me was incredible, and obviously one I’ll never forget. But it was a difficult time as well. Two weeks before camp I hurt my knee and ended up needing a small surgery because I chipped a bone that needed to be removed. It was a really easy procedure, but nobody knew that I had the surgery so I was a little isolated. Then I really had to fight my way back into the team, get fit and make the roster, which wasn’t easy looking at how many great players were there. After I made the roster I lost my starting spot to Geoff Cameron, which was a major blow to my confidence, and harder being alone in Brazil. So it was a really challenging time for me, but I worked my way out of that and when I got my chance I was proud to represent myself and my country.
RK: Separate from, or during, the play on the field, did you ever find yourself in one of those “pinch me” moments, just considering the magnitude of the World Cup, and what a dream come true it must have been for you to be there?
OG: It was definitely surreal, and you can’t help yourself when the national anthem is played or walking out against Germany for my first start. But I wanted to enjoy it, stay even keeled and get my confidence back, knowing that I was there for a reason and had prepared my whole life for online casino this.
RK: Were there any particularly memorable moments on the field against Portugal, Germany or Belgium match?
OG: Obviously we lost to Germany, but finding out we advanced immediately after and celebrating together was really exciting. To be a part of a team that got out of the Group of Death, where so many people wrote us off, was pretty crazy in and of itself.
RK: Especially against Germany, you had some moments where you dispossessed some of the best players in the world. Thinking of player match ups, were there ever any moments where you felt in awe of your competition? It certainly didn’t look like it.
OG: No, never. There’s no time for that. I don’t give a damn who I’m going up against. Obviously there are some guys who are more skillful and you have to be a little more aware of what they can do, but you’re trying to beat those guys, so you can’t be a fan or be mesmerized by who you’re going up against.
RK: Do you look back at your World Cup experience and wish you could have done anything different, either on or off the field?
OG: As of right now, I wouldn’t change anything. The experience I had was so unique, with my confidence being gone and then finding a way to get back into the right frame of mind. I feel like I learned a lot about myself, and am proud of the whole experience.
RK: How has it felt getting back into the national team, and what was it like to score your first?
OG: It’s always great to be a part of this team. It’s a huge honor, and we are all focused on accomplishing the goal of winning the Gold Cup. Obviously getting my first goal was a great feeling. More importantly, it helped put us one step closer to the final.
RK: Thinking about your career in MLS, what has it been like to be a part of the Galaxy? We all know their history and success, but what’s the culture of the club all about?
OG: Well, getting drafted to the Galaxy, and to be on the same team as Landon, David Beckham, Tonny Sanneh , Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis and Jovan Kirovski, was pretty amazing. These are guys who had great careers and I was able to learn from them, ask questions and hear their stories every day. All of that helped me get to where I am now. As a culture, I think we consider ourselves champions and strive to do everything right, from the front office to what takes place on the field with the first team, Galaxy 2 and the academy. In that sense I think we’re trendsetters.
RK: Do you think fans (either yours or your opponent’s fans) appreciate that or do you get the sense that “The Galaxy” has become just another label where people overlook the small details that create the conditions for success?
OG: Yeah, fans always talk about how much money we spend. But it doesn’t matter how much you spend on players if they don’t have the right environment to play in. Since I’ve been with the club I think we’ve brought in the right players and staff who fit well together.
RK: Thinking about your time with Tony and Gregg, what was it like to be mentored by such solid backs?
OG: Yeah, both of them were really great defenders who I learned a lot from. Tony was only there for a year, so I didn’t get to know him as well, but I actually still talk to Gregg regularly. He in particular was, and still is, a great mentor – he’d always yell at me in training and get mad at what I was doing, but it’s because he saw what I could become and he gave me the kick in the butt I needed.
RK: So that’s way back when you were young and the core of your team was Beckham and Donovan, but now the core is guys like you and AJ. Have you given much thought to that, and how it alters your approach to the team, or has it come naturally?
OG: Well, I think the transition has come naturally, but it’s actually something I probably need to think about a little bit more, especially now that I’m a guy who younger players are looking up to.
RK: Were you able to watch Gerrard”s debut with the Galaxy, and what were your thoughts on the performance?
OG: I did watch the game and it looked like he is fitting in really well already. I was happy for him that he was able to score straight away. Everything I have heard has been very positive, and having a player of his quality and character is a big benefit as we push for another MLS title.
RK: When you look at the arch of your young career, you’re only twenty-six but you’ve accomplished a lot as an individual and won at every level you’ve competed. What do you want to accomplish now, and what’s motivating you and your team?
OG: First and foremost, I always want to get better as a player, to hone my craft and perfect the little parts of my game that need work. As a team, I think it’s important that we play at a higher level in Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League. Those are tournaments where we haven’t performed well, and if we really want to be considered the best we need to show well in those completions. Don’t get me wrong, we want to win more MLS Cups; hoisting that trophy with your teammates never gets old. But we can do better in other competitions.
RK: I know it’s a sensitive subject, but where do you stand on what went down with the recent CBA? Do you think the commissioner has been fair in his public pronouncements about the results of the negotiations?
OG: I think we made some strides getting free agency in the picture, and we definitely need to see minimum salaries and overall pay go up in the future, but that’s a discussion for the next CBA. As far as what the commissioner’s said, I haven’t heard or read everything, and I do think he cares about the league. But he’s a voice for the owners, and in the end we understand it’s a business where owners want to hold onto their money. Ultimately, I think the American player is undervalued and deserves more in terms of compensation.
RK: Do you think American players are undervalued both here, and in the international market?
OG: I would say so, but I think that’s starting to change. I think our league and youth development system are heading in the right direction, but we still need to be patient as it keeps improving. By now I think it’s pretty clear that we’re developing better players, with a better understanding of the game (and better fans too, where the game is in their blood). All that takes time to come together, but I think we’ll see a lot of changes in the near future, including player valuation.
RK: Speaking of the future, what does it look like for you?
OG: I think it could be one of two things. Either I go to Europe, or I try to play for the Galaxy the rest of my life. I don’t know, but Europe is definitely still intriguing, so we’ll see.
RK: What would make it more than intriguing?
OG: Well, it has to be the right situation where I’m really wanted and have the possibility of playing right away. I don’t want to go where I’m not one of the top two players at my position, or there are all kinds of coaching and personnel changes. But if a good opportunity comes around I’d be very interested to see what happens.
RK: With all that’s taken place with you personally, getting married and now with a little one, how has family life changed you and how does it impact these types of decisions moving forward?
OG: Obviously everything’s new and exciting for me, and life has been really good, but I don’t think too much has changed. My priorities have changed in some ways, where family comes first and now I have extra motivation to perform well and provide for my wife and daughter.
RK: And when it’s all said and done and you hang up the boots, do you want to stay involved with the game or move on to something totally different?
OG: I have no idea, and hope I don’t have to think about that for another, I don’t know, six or ten years.
RK: How about ten?
OG: Yeah, ten years.