DAVENPORT, Fla. (AP) — After the worst moment of his soccer life, after his own goal at Trinidad and Tobago helped cost the United States a World Cup, Omar Gonzalez called Gregg Berhalter.
Gonzalez was 20 when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2009 and Berhalter was a 35-year-old fellow defender.
“From that point on, he was always hard on me and trying to get me to improve and teaching me things,” Gonzalez recalled Tuesday. “Any time I had to make a big decision or things like that, I would always reach out to him.”
Berhalter was hired as U.S. coach in December, and he restored Gonzalez to the national team for the first time since that nadir in American soccer history, choosing him for his first roster with the full U.S. player pool. Gonzalez is among the few veterans training for Thursday’s exhibition against Ecuador, mixed with the youngsters that include the trio of 20-year-old sensations, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams.
“We have been saying all along that we thought it was important to have a veteran presence in the national team,” Berhalter said.
At 6-foot-5, Gonzalez had stood out since he made his national team debut against Brazil in August 2010. After that October 2017 night in Couva, Trinidad, he was the object of American fans’ ire along with his teammates. Gonzalez casually tried to clear Alvin Jones’ cross and sent it looping from 15 yards over the outstretched right arm of Tim Howard for an own goal in the 17th minute. Jones doubled the lead in the 37th minute, and the frantic Americans managed only Pulisic’s 47th-minute goal in a 2-1 defeat that left them one point short of qualifying.
Gonzalez stood outside the dingy stadium’s locker room in the damp night and explained how awful he felt.
“It’s definitely lingered. It stayed with me for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be over it, but I am past it emotionally. As an athlete, you can’t stay with those things too long or else you lose what you’re doing at the moment, right?”
He wished he could have let his teammates know how he felt.
“I wasn’t able to talk to anybody who was there with me because after the loss you all go your separate ways,” he said.
He returned to Mexico, where he had signed with Pachuca after the 2015 season. Last summer, he was loaned to Atlas.
“I think it was definitely good that I was in Mexico, because I didn’t really get bothered by any media or anything like that. So I just sort of stayed out of the light,” Gonzalez said. “I’m sure it was much different for the players who had to come back to MLS and really face everyone.”
John Brooks and Matt Miazga appear to be the first-choice central defenders three months ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Berhalter’s other options are Gonzalez, 31-year-old Tim Ream and 26-year-old Aaron Long.
Berhalter is trying to instill a possession-based style with fluid movement and center backs who are more involved in offensive movement.
“These first two days have been eye-opening and really, really surprising in a good way, just the amount of detail and how they work and how they explain things and the amount of information,” Gonzalez said. “Really painting a clear picture of who we are and how we want to play.”
Gonzalez said Berhalter, then Columbus’ coach, played a key role in helping his career rebound.
“I reached out to him and asked him if he knew anybody who could just do my tactical analysis for me personally. So I started paying this guy and really working on just understanding the game better, understanding my position with the ball, without the ball,” he said.
When he was a young player, Gonzalez remembered Berhalter taking the field 40 minutes before training to set up cones, recommending passing drills.
“I’ve always told him that I would love to play for him because I saw what he was doing at Hammarby and then what he did with Columbus and how the team was playing,” Gonzalez said.
He was viewed as a likely starter ahead of the 2014 World Cup, but injured his left knee in early May while playing for the Galaxy. After missing the opener and all but injury time of the Americans’ second match, he started against Germany and Belgium.
He will be 33 by the time the time the 2022 World Cup starts.
“I’m not thinking that far,” Gonzalez said. “I’m really just staying in the present.”