I have a confession: my first goal as a youth player was an own goal.
I was in middle school. I had grown up playing in recreation youth leagues and, to put it bluntly, I sucked. I was slow and awkward and clumsy. I had a hard time just kicking the ball ten yards ahead of me. I wasn’t quite useless, but even I realized that I was the weak link in the team.
I don’t remember the game very well. The only part that is vivid in my mind was the goal. Our team was pretty good, but the opposition were way better than us. They physically outmatched us, bullying our best players right from the whistle. I was playing on the backline when the other team won a corner. They whipped it in, but the ball skipped through the box, past everyone, all the way to the back post, right in front of me. I had to do something but if felt like all my options were closed off.
The other team’s star striker, a player who towered two feet above tiny me in my mind’s eye, was bearing down on me. I panicked. I was too small and slow to dribble past him and and I didn’t have the time to turn and pass it out. So I did what seemed like the only rational choice left. I tried to gently lob the ball over the cross bar. Instead, I smashed it into the back of my own net.
We all know what happened on October 10, 2017 in Couva. In the 17th minute, a cross from out left was whipped into the box, straight at Omar Gonzalez. It skipped on the ground before going off of Gonzalez’s shin, arcing high into the air and completely wrong footing Tim Howard. 1-0 to Trinidad. Twenty minutes later and Alvin Jones hit a speculative shot from way out deep to bury the United States. And, combined with extremely suspect and unfortunate events in the other concurrent World Cup qualifying matches, the U.S. missed out on their first World Cup since 1990.
A full 18 months have passed since then. The World Cup has come and gone, yet the pain still lingers. And with it comes a kind of anxiety about the future. Thanks to that one night, we all can feel just how tenuous our grip on the world soccer scene really is. Every single one of you reading this knows about moment. Most of us watched it happen live. I know some of you were even there at the stadium on that night. Losing that game in that manner and missing out on the World Cup made for the single most painful match I’ve ever experienced in all my years in sports. As a collective, we as American soccer fans, are scarred and angry at what happened. And, at the center of all that anguish, now and forever, lay Omar Gonzalez.
The March friendlies were the first time Gonzalez was called back to the national team since that match. His start against Chile was the first time he played with the team since that match. That call-up and that cap were deeply unpopular with the USMNT fan base. How dare the man who buried the USMNT’s World Cup dreams play for the team again? How dare Gregg Berhalter call up the brainless oaf who doomed us in the last cycle?
That wasn’t my take. In fact, I was glad Gonzalez got called up again.
Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time pondering about Omar Gonzalez. I’ve never been much of an advocate for him, nor have I ever rooted for (or even regularly watched) any of the club teams he’s played for. But I’ve been thinking about Gonzalez, about that goal, and instead of anger, I feel sorrow. What ever happens on the field, the players remain people. Omar Gonzalez may forever be remembered for that unfortunate own goal, but he remains a person. And by all accounts, he remains a decent person at that. Gonzalez regularly donates to charity. He carries himself and talks with a level of cheer and humility. He’s not a dirty player. And he seems to genuinely care about his teammates and the fans. In fact, Gonzalez was one of the players who went out and talked to the press pool immediately after the loss against Trinidad.
Just imagine for a second that you are a player coming out after a loss in which you were overwhelming favorites, a loss that dashes the dreams of playing at the highest level in your profession, a loss that tarnishes the reputation of a slew of players and coaches and administrators, a loss that completely undermines an entire nation’s dreams and efforts in a sport, a loss for which you are held responsible because of a mistake. Imagine all of that, and imagine still coming out and answering questions about what happened. That is a stand up thing to do.
For that matter, it is wrong to say that it is Omar Gonzalez’s fault that the USMNT missed the World Cup. Yes, he screwed up and scored an own goal. But soccer is not made up of individual moments. The USMNT did not lose against Trinidad and Tobago merely because Omar Gonzalez scored an own goal. They lost because the team as a whole played terribly. They lost because the attacking band almost never completed a pass in the attacking third. They lost because Jorge Villafaña was nowhere to be seen while Trinidad broke down the left wing, because Matt Besler let his man put in a cross in the final third. They lost because Bruce Arena decided to trot out the exact same lineup of tired players that had played against Panama a few days earlier. They didn’t miss out on the World Cup because Gonzalez mis-hit a ball after it skipped weirdly on uneven turf in Couva. They missed out one the World Cup because Arena screwed up bad and lost a home game against Costa Rica, and because Jurgen Klinsmann stuck his team in a formation that they hadn’t practiced against Mexico. The USMNT missed the World Cup, not because one of these things happened, but because all of these things happened They lost out on the World Cup because the team only won three games through the whole of the Hex.
Ultimately, when I look at Omar Gonzalez, I can’t help but see a little bit of myself. Not everybody scores an own goal. Not everybody humiliates themselves like that. But for those of us who do screw up that epically, it is devastating. It’s the sort of thing that can make a kid who loves the sport quit forever. When I scored that own goal, I felt so ashamed, I didn’t want to get back on the field. My teammates looked at me with such contempt. What is wrong with you, they asked. But my coach stood up for me. Somehow, he understood. He got that I was just trying to clear the ball and that it went horribly, disastrously, wrong. He gave me another chance and encouraged me to go back out there. It was one moment that went badly, but that does not mean that, in the next moment, I couldn’t do something great. And, it turned out, I did get that next moment. In that same game, I turned a clearance into the perfect through ball for our striker to run onto and score. Later in the season, I filled in for the keeper and somehow consistently scrambled to keep the goal clear. I got my chance at redemption and I got to taste what it’s like to be the hero.
Look, I’m not going to pretend that Omar Gonzalez is this incredible, elite, unmissable talent. At this point, he’s had a whole career for us to look at to see his strengths and weaknesses. We know he’s good at set pieces and scrambling to keep the defense clear. He’s bad when the team is playing a high line and there’s space in behind him. Depending on how the team is set up, he could very likely be the odd man out when looking at the center back player pool. Given Berhalter’s game plan so far, that seems to mostly be the case. But I’m not going to let that mistake in Couva cloud my judgment. I’m not going to resent him for one screw up. And when he does have a decent performance, like he did against Chile (when the game plan matched his skillset), I’m not going to let that bad game 18 months ago make me say otherwise. Because I’m rooting for Gonzalez to succeed every time he steps on the field. Because I’d love for him to be the hero again. Because I want to see Omar Gonzalez redeem himself.