8:25 PM EDT, May 29, 2014
The finish line is so close defender Omar Gonzalez can see it.
Brazil. The World Cup. Something he's been pointing toward for as long as he can remember.
"It's a big deal because it's been my dream since I was young," he says.
Only now it looks like Gonzalez, the 25-year-old Galaxy star and former MLS defender of the year, could cross that finish line sitting down. After playing in 14 games for the U.S. national team last year — just one player appeared in more — Gonzalez may have lost his starting job less than three weeks before the U.S. team's World Cup opener.
U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said the lineup he'll use against Ghana in the group-play opener next month will look a lot like the one he started in Tuesday's friendly with Azerbaijan. And Gonzalez started that game on the bench.
What's more Geoff Cameron, his replacement, was solid and confident in his place, especially when passing out of the back, something Gonzalez has struggled with. And that's no small matter because Klinsmann wants his defenders passing, rather than just booting the ball way downfield where it often winds up with the other team.
Against Azerbaijan, when Gonzalez did play in the second half, he looked hesitant at times.
"Naturally, it's open," Klinsmann said of the competition at center back. "How much, it's difficult to say."
But bad timing and Cameron's strong play aren't the only things working against Gonzalez. He has also been slowed by a knee injury that kept him out of his last game with the Galaxy before World Cup training camp, then limited his participation during the first week of that camp. Gonzalez insists his knee is 100% now, but his coach says he still has some catching up to do in the team's final two send-off games, Sunday against Turkey and June 7 against Nigeria.
"Cam's now a little bit ahead of him," Klinsmann said. "Both are working hard to make their point. And we keep using those send-off games to see more from them. Every training session we see more of them before we then decide who's going to be the starter going into Brazil."
It's a big shift in momentum for Gonzalez, who was the U.S.'s primary center back in the final round of World Cup qualifying last year. This year hasn't gone as well, though. In a friendly with Mexico last month, mistakes by Gonzalez contributed to both Mexico goals in a 2-2 tie.
But that won't keep Gonzalez from going to Brazil — and taking his family with him — which may be enough of a thank you for all his parents sacrificed to get him this far.
"In a way, it is me giving back to them," he said. "Obviously, they were always part of my backbone and keeping me going and keeping me strong. So it's for everyone, not just for myself.
"I'm going there representing the country. And then secondly, my family name on the back."
That family name is prominent in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, where there was never any doubt Omar, the youngest of four children, would be a star athlete.
His sisters both attended college on athletic scholarships, Roxanna as a soccer player at Louisiana's Nicholls State University and Luisanna in volleyball at New Mexico. Brother Adrian was an offensive lineman at Louisiana Tech before being invited to camp with the Washington Redskins in 2005.
Even his parents, Adrian and Maria, were athletes, they met while playing volleyball in a Dallas park.
So at age 4 Gonzalez was playing T-ball. In junior high he played baseball and basketball and as a high school freshman he kicked a 45-yard field goal, drawing the attention of several Division I programs. But if he was good at all those other sports he was great at soccer.
"He was a natural," his father, a truck driver, said. "The first time we saw him touch a soccer ball, it was obvious that he was different from the other kids. I thought I was dreaming. I just said, 'Wow!' He has something'."
He wasn't the only one who had that feeling. The first time Amy Korenvaes saw Gonzalez she, too, knew he was special. Gonzalez had arrived late to a tryout for an elite travel team he was too young to play for. But it didn't take long for him to prove he belonged.
"He just [walked] on to that field and you knew that he was head and shoulders above everybody else," says Korenvaes, whose son Max was already on the team. "Everybody's jaws just dropped. He was taller, stronger, faster. And he was tireless."
He was also just 9.
All that talent couldn't make up for the one thing Gonzalez lacked: the $1,500 needed to register for the team. So the Korenvaes family picked up the tab and over the next couple of years Gonzalez spent almost as much time at their home in the wealthy Highland Park area of Dallas as he did at his own family's house.
"They saw potential in me," Gonzalez says. "And that's how I got my start."
Now that the finish line is in sight, Gonzalez is trying to win his starting job back by tapping deep into that potential — never an easy thing for a young player stepping on soccer's biggest stage for the first time.
Alexi Lalas can relate. He dealt with the same thing in his first World Cup in 1994 with the U.S. team when he was 24, a year younger than Gonzalez is now.
"He has incredible potential. But he certainly doesn't know what it's like to step on the field in something the magnitude of what this summer will be," Lalas, now a soccer analyst for ESPN, said of Gonzalez. "The sooner that he can realize that it's the exact same game that he's been playing all along, the better off he'll be.
"I lived the power of a World Cup."
The Gonzalez family is learning about that now. Two months ago Omar flew his parents out from Texas to see him and his girlfriend Erica get married in a bare-bones ceremony at city hall.
"I'm happy for them," his mother said.
But the power of the World Cup is stronger even than marriage apparently, because Maria Gonzalez says watching his son take a wife will pale in comparison to watching him walk into the stadium for a World Cup game — even if he never gets off the bench.
"Just seeing him make it is a miracle and a blessing. Because it's his dream," Maria Gonzalez said. "I'm happy that he's married and we love Erica. But the World Cup is ... well, what can I say?"
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