Omar Gonzalez's disappointing display raises concern over U.S. going into World Cup

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports
Omar Gonzalez's disappointing display raises concern over U.S. going into World Cup
Omar Gonzalez's disappointing display raises concern over U.S. going into World Cup

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Hopefully for Omar Gonzalez, he didn't pay too much attention to social media on Wednesday night because the United States central defender wouldn't have liked the story it told.

Gonzalez was singled out for some acerbic abuse following his performance in the U.S.' 2-2 friendly draw with Mexico at the University of Phoenix Stadium on an evening that was one of his most disappointing in a national team uniform.

And with just two-and-a-half months remaining before the U.S. kicks off its World Cup campaign, the 25-year-old's display raised the age-old soccer question of how much form, especially in friendlies, matters leading into a major championship.

Fans – and often head coaches too – tend to fall into two categories on the issue. You could define them as the "Tried and Trusted" camp and the "What Have You Done For Me Lately" brigade.

For some of the Twitterati, Gonzalez's struggles in Arizona were an ominous portent of future struggles. After all, a Mexican attack that scored just seven times in 10 games over CONCACAF's final qualifying round was able to expose him twice during its second half comeback.

Gonzalez could not pick up the fast advancing Rafa Marquez on a corner kick in the 49th minute, as the Mexican captain went unmarked to launch a powerful header into the corner of the net. Later, Gonzalez looked to have been caught out of position as Alan Pulido pounced quickest when a low strike rebounded off the post.

For others, Gonzalez's body of work over the past two years will have been enough to allay any panic over this performance. After all, during World Cup qualifiers, the Los Angeles Galaxy man established his place on the side, then formed a solid partnership with fellow central defender Matt Besler and was, at least until Wednesday, almost unanimously seen as one of the steadiest spots on the team.

In his defense, the Major League Soccer season is in its infancy – the Galaxy have only played twice in league action – so a little ring rust can be forgiven, but it needs to be eliminated quickly if the doubters are to be silenced.

Klinsmann's pre-World Cup training camp starts in six weeks and after that, the greatest show in soccer begins. That is no place to still be searching for form.

Klinsmann occupied the middle ground in the Gonzalez debate, which is probably right where he should be. He did not overreact to the player's uncharacteristic troubles against Mexico but did point out that the team made "defensive mistakes that … you just can't make."

The coach has some tough decisions to make before the plane to Brazil is boarded, both in terms of who is on it as part of the final squad of 23 and who is sat, metaphorically, in first class for the starting eleven against Ghana on June 16. Gonzalez looked to be ticketed for a first-sting seat, but Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson might now feel they have a shot.

Cameron, like the rest of the U.S.' European-based players, did not come back for the Mexico game, but he has a chance to catch Klinsmann's eye with his English Premier League team Stoke City taking on Chelsea this weekend.

"Naturally, it is open," said Klinsmann, when pressed on the likely starting central defensive pairing.

The split personality of the U.S. talent pool – as many as 10 of Klinsmann's final squad could come from MLS – makes the coach's job that much harder.

For example, how can you compare like for like when Jozy Altidore's Sunderland has its next four games all against teams in the top six of the Premier League, one of the strongest competitions in the world? At the same time, forward Chris Wondolowski, who scored the U.S.'s second goal on Wednesday and is likely on the bubble of the World Cup squad, takes on Columbus, Colorado, Chivas USA and Vancouver. Of those clubs, only Colorado made the MLS playoffs last season, and it lost in the first round.

If it seems concerning that Klinsmann is still figuring things out in regards to his squad, the good news is that he is not the only one. The reduced international schedule means that more than ever World Cup-bound coaches will rely on what they see in final training camps to make their critical selections.

Klinsmann admitted that, despite three years of preparation, he "still has a lot of homework to do."

So too, do some of his players.

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