Gon­za­lez a force in Mex­ico and U.S.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL -

PHIL­A­DEL­PHIA — Omar Gon­za­lez had just left the LA Galaxy to join Mex­ico’s Pachuca when his new club’s chair­man had a re­quest: Would the 6-5 de­fender walk into his in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence dressed as Darth Vader?

Of course, he obliged. Ever since, he has become a de­fen­sive force.

“I had signed a con­tract 15 min­utes prior to that, so I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ It was a bit small,” Gon­za­lez re­called of the cos­tume Tues­day. “I don’t know if they met any other Mex­i­can my size.”

Now 28 years old, Gon­za­lez is among the U.S. play­ers try­ing to im­press re­turn­ing Coach Bruce Arena in the CON­CA­CAF Gold Cup. The Amer­i­cans play El Sal­vador tonight in a quar­ter­fi­nal match.

He made his na­tional team de­but in Au­gust 2010 dur­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion against Brazil, which gave a teenage for­ward named Ney­mar his first in­ter­na­tional ap­pear­ance that night in New Jer­sey.

Gon­za­lez went on to become one of Ma­jor League Soc­cer’s high­est-paid play­ers, but his ca­reer stalled: first a torn knee lig­a­ment dur­ing his ini­tial train­ing ses­sion fol­low­ing a Jan­uary 2012 loan to the Ger­man club Nurem­berg, then a knee in­jury that kept him from start­ing the first two games of the 2014 World Cup.

But worst of all was malaise dur­ing his fi­nal sea­sons with the Galaxy.

“I was just do­ing enough to get by and things were OK,” he said.

Gon­za­lez de­cided to change his at­ti­tude and al­ter his rest reg­i­men. He signed with Pachuca in De­cem­ber 2015, helped that team win last year’s Clausura ti­tle in the top level of Mex­ico’s league sys­tem — and now he is flour­ish­ing on a team that will be in this year’s Club World Cup.

“Ev­ery­one said this is the next so-and-so. And that’s all well and good, but un­til you get out there and prove it,” U.S. goal­keeper Tim Howard ex­plained.

“He’s ma­tured. When you have abil­ity and other peo­ple think you have abil­ity, it’s great. When you ac­tu­ally re­al­ize your own abil­ity and po­ten­tial, I think the game slows down for you a lit­tle bit and you get very com­fort­able with your own move­ments and your own com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Born in Dal­las to Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can par­ents, Gon­za­lez could have played for ei­ther coun­try. An All-Amer­i­can at Mary­land, he was the third pick over­all in the 2009 MLS Draft and then that sea­son was voted MLS Rookie of the Year with the Galaxy, all while be­ing coached by Arena.

Dur­ing the de­fender’s time in LA., Gon­za­lez met Erica, the woman he would marry, at the 30th birth­day party of Kenny Arena, now as as­sis­tant coach for his dad.

Gon­za­lez lived in Man­hat­tan Beach but de­cided to shake up his life with the move to Pachuca, a city of about 265,000, where he now lives with Erica and their two daugh­ters, 2½-year-old Isla and 1-year-old Co­lette.

“It’s just a to­tally dif­fer­ent life­style,” he said. “In LA, you’re done with train­ing and you sit around and you think, what should I do to­day? There’s al­ways some­thing, to do, and Pachuca there’s not re­ally much to do.”

The fam­ily makes the hour­long drive to Costco out­side Mex­ico City to fill the SUV with gro­ceries and sup­plies. He is care­ful to check the cal­en­dar to avoid shop­ping on the mid­dle and fi­nal days of each month.

“You don’t go to the mall when it’s pay day. When peo­ple get paid, it’s packed,” he said.

He is con­vinced he would not have re­vived his ca­reer had he not de­cided to leave Los An­ge­les.

“It’s def­i­nitely made me a bet­ter player and also made me a bet­ter per­son, liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent coun­try, liv­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment you’re not used to,” Gon­za­lez said.

“I spent my whole ca­reer in LA be­fore I made this move, un­der the same coach, and so things were very com­fort­able for me, I would say. And what Mex­ico did was put me in an un­com­fort­able po­si­tion, and I went to a place where I was un­sure of my­self play­ing ev­ery sin­gle game, and Mex­ico I be­lieve is still ahead of MLS in terms of the qual­ity and the play­ers’ tech­ni­cal abil­ity.”

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