Jurgen Klinsmann has always had a dominant central midfielder in Michael Bradley. He had as accomplished an attacker as the United States has ever had in Clint Dempsey. At least upon occasion, he had the Americans' all-time leading goalscorer in Landon Donovan. In goal, he had Tim Howard or Brad Guzan, either of whom is capable of stealing points. But 20 months into his tenure, Klinsmann did not have a great central defender.
That may have changed on Tuesday night. Now Klinsmann has Omar Gonzalez.
In just his fifth cap, and at just 24 years old, Gonzalez turned in a near heroic performance against the Americans' biggest rivals, Mexico. More than 100,000 fans heckled, jeered and hurled whatever they could reach at Gonzalez and his teammates. As dangerous an attacking quartet as there is in CONCACAF came at him. A back line that he has barely played with flanked him. And yet time and time again, Gonzalez turned Mexico back.
To say that it was just Gonzalez who stymied Mexico wouldn't be fair, seeing as he was just one of 11 men in white shirts for the U.S., but for the first half-hour it was almost true. Matt Besler started shaky in his first major international, DaMarcus Beasley looked every bit like the out-of-position left back that he was and Geoff Cameron was swimming against Giovani dos Santos and Andres Guardado. But while the rest of the defense stumbled, Gonzalez was there, putting out every fire his teammates started.
As the match went on and the rest of the defense founding their footing, Gonzalez had more freedom and he took advantage. He popped up everywhere, doing everything and stealing the spotlight normally reserved for attackers.
It was no surprise that Gonzalez dominated in the air. At 6'5'', his aerial presence was one of the few sure things about him when the LA Galaxy drafted him four years ago, but questions about his lateral quickness, pace and ability to read the game persisted.
None of those questions remain anymore. In addition to making Mexico's 20 crosses and 15 corner kicks largely insignificant, he had four interceptons, five recoveries and a vital block. He commanded the back line, which Klinsmann said was the next step he had to take back in January, and even when Javier Hernandez tried to run off his back shoulder, Gonzalez showed enough pace to turn and run with him.
It is no coincidence that in a week in which the U.S. and Klinsmann batted back any doubts and questions about their ability to compete, Gonzalez did the same. He played the best soccer of his career and as he shone, so did the U.S.
Gonzalez will be the first one to tell you that to shine at the Azteca means a little extra to him. His father was born in Monterrey, Mexico and the mammoth stadium in Mexico City is the mecca of Mexican football. There was even speculation two years ago that Gonzalez -- then coming off of a MLS Best XI selection, but still ignored by Klinsmann and the U.S. -- might switch and play for Mexico.
Klinsmann has to be thanking his lucky stars that Gonzalez never did make the switch (and it is unclear if he ever seriously considered it) because on Tuesday night, Gonzalez was the difference between the two teams. Always one to step up to challenges and take any slight, knock or doubt as motivation, Gonzalez had 100,000 of them dressed in green at the Azteca.
Next up for Gonzalez will be a move away from MLS, as he is likely to leave the Galaxy in January to join a bigger club in a bigger league. Performances like the one against Mexico will only make his next club a more prestigious one, and push his ceiling higher and higher as he threatens to become the best American defender since Eddie Pope, or even the best ever.
Two years ago, Klinsmann took over a U.S. team that had just been thrashed by Mexico in the Gold Cup final. They surrendered four goals, were embarrassed and Mexico were the undoubted top team in the region. On Tuesday night, the U.S. fought back, playing Mexico level in the Mexicans' own hostile home and they did it from the back. They did it on the back on Gonzalez, the dominant defender Klinsmann has been looking for.