U.S. Defense is Bolstered by a New Man in the Middle
As the teams played on a rain-drenched field, Germany pelted the mouth of the U.S. goal with a succession of speculative services. But Omar Gonzalez was there to allay the danger, finishing with a game-high 10 clearances.
Because the memory of Portugal's fifth-minute goal against them last Sunday was still so fresh, the last thing the United States players and fans needed to see Thursday afternoon was another early defensive miscue.
But there it was.
Less than 10 minutes into the team's Group G game at Arena Pernambuco, Jerome Boateng of Germany swerved a dangerous cross in front of the United States' goal, and Omar Gonzalez whiffed at it, letting the ball go through his legs.
It felt painfully similar to Geoff Cameron's mistake against Portugal that dropped the U.S. into a sudden 1-0 hole - except in the case of Gonzalez, who took Cameron's place at center back in the starting lineup Thursday, the ball did not end up in the back of the American net.
"No one has a perfect game," Gonzalez said after the game. "It's what you do after you have the hiccup."
What Gonzalez did was rebound and produce a robust performance against one of the tournament's most dynamic attacking teams.
Even with its 1-0 loss to Germany, the U.S. still made it to the knockout round thanks to Portugal's 2-1 victory over Ghana, which allowed the Americans to advance on goal differential. A more lopsided loss to Germany would have put that tiebreaker in jeopardy, and Gonzalez, 25, was crucial in minimizing the damage.
As the teams played on a rain-drenched field, Germany pelted the mouth of the U.S. goal with a succession of speculative services. But Gonzalez was there to allay the danger, finishing with a game-high 10 clearances.
It was a restorative showing for Gonzalez, given all that he has gone through in the last two months. (Also read: Barack Obama praises team)
After starting eight of the team's 10 games in the final round of World Cup qualifying last year, he arrived at the U.S. World Cup training camp in May with a minor knee injury that limited him in practice. But injuries, however big or small, can have lasting repercussions at the national team level, where competition within a squad is fierce at almost every position.
Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, said Thursday that Gonzalez "was a little behind when he came in" to camp. But even after Gonzalez got back to normal speed, he could not reclaim his place in coach Jurgen Klinsmann's starting lineup. (Pics: Obama leads cheers for USA)
"When I stepped back on the field, I think I was ready to go," Gonzalez said. "It's just that I think my little injury let Cameron in, and Jurgen was showing a lot of confidence in Cameron. Things change, and now, since I got my opportunity, I definitely want to make the most of it."
Klinsmann appeared to lose confidence in Cameron with his team's 2-2 tie against Portugal. After his opening mistake, Cameron, in the dying seconds of the game, lost track of Silvestre Varela, who headed in the tying goal on essentially the game's final play.
Klinsmann on Thursday characterized the lineup change merely as an effort to cycle "a bit of freshness" into the team, which had a brutal travel schedule in the first round and only three days off after the Portugal game.
Gonzalez found out that he would be starting a few days before the Germany game, during the team's first preparatory video session for the match. It would be his first start in the World Cup.
Gonzalez, who plays in Major League Soccer for the Los Angeles Galaxy, informed his wife, members of his family and some of his teammates back home. He texted Gregg Berhalter, a former national team defender who is one of his mentors. (Match in pics)
Gonzalez battled nerves in the days before Thursday's game, but he said they disappeared after the opening whistle.
"He had a huge game, especially in the first half," said Matt Besler, the team's other center back. "He had three or four clearances for us that were very big. He was always in the right spot."
The U.S. players said after the game they were too tentative in the first 20 minutes, which allowed the Germans to dictate play. But Gonzalez kept popping up to make last-second clearances.
Shortly after halftime, Gonzalez showed nice mobility, footwork and strength to disrupt Mesut Ozil's close-range header. Midfielder Graham Zusi said Gonzalez's height - he is 6 feet 5 inches - gave the U.S. a big advantage in airborne crosses and set pieces.
Having advanced, the U.S. will face another strong offense in Belgium. It can only help that Gonzalez appears to be in good form.
"Getting his game, this really kick-starts his tournament now," Klinsmann said. "We were sure that Omar was ready. He was."