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ON SOCCER

Gonzalez a rising star

It's been a breakout year for the Galaxy defender, who's drawn notice playing on the U.S. national team.

April 07, 2013|KEVIN BAXTER
  • Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez waves to fans after the Galaxy won the MLS Cup championship game last season.
Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez waves to fans after the Galaxy won the MLS… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Lalo Rodriguez Plata once roamed the back line at aging Estadio Tecnologico, anchoring a stout defense as captain of the Monterrey Rayados of Mexico's First Division.

But nearly three decades have passed since then, so Rodriguez insists there will be no split loyalties when his nephew, Omar Gonzalez, steps to the same back line for the visiting Galaxy in Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against his old team.

"I don't work for Monterrey," Rodriguez says in Spanish. "Right now I'm with Omar."

And he's not alone.

Although Gonzalez was born and raised in Texas, both sides of his family have deep roots in and around Monterrey, where he spent summers and holidays training. After his freshman year in college, Gonzalez even tried out for Monterrey's inter-city rival, Tigres UNAL.

So he can count on a big cheering section Wednesday.

"He has a lot of cousins, uncles," Rodriguez said. "How many? Wow! Too many. A lot. A lot of family.

"We're all very proud of him."

With good reason, because this has been a breakout year for Gonzalez. His talent had long been known in Major League Soccer, where, in his first four seasons, he was named the MLS rookie of the year, defender of the year and MVP of December's MLS Cup after helping the Galaxy to a second straight title.

But it was three standout performances with the U.S. national team in World Cup qualifying this winter that made people outside MLS sit up and take notice.

Those people, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena says, should have been paying attention earlier.

"There's an illusion that these national team call-ups are like waving a wand and all of a sudden someone becomes a different player," Arena says. "He's a player that's been here with all his good qualities and not all good qualities. He should have probably been in their mix two years ago, three years ago, getting experience to help move forward."

Gonzalez played twice for the U.S. national team under former coach Bob Bradley, but he was lost to both the Galaxy and the U.S. for most of last year after tearing the ACL in his left knee training with a German club.

The injury was the first major setback in a career that had been otherwise trouble-free. And teammate and former college roommate A.J. DeLaGarza says the time away from soccer was good for Gonzalez.

"I think he probably took a step back and thought about everything that was going on, on and off the field, trying to be a better player, a better teammate, a better person," DeLaGarza says. "He definitely came back stronger."

Gonzalez agrees.

"I definitely appreciate what I'm doing a lot more," he says. "It made me look at things a lot differently. I just think it's helped me toward becoming a better all-around player."

And a player who figures to have a lot of suitors when his Galaxy contract expires at the end of the season -- though Gonzalez insists he's not thinking about that now.

"Right now my mind is all focused on the Galaxy and with the national team," he says. "I love playing for the Galaxy. I've been here for five years now and I love everything about it, from the organization, the people around the club, the coaching staff. I absolutely love it."

It's a love that won't go unrequited, says Arena, who promises the Galaxy will do everything it can to keep the 24-year-old Gonzalez in Southern California.

That could be tough, though, because clubs in Europe and Mexico are likely to offer Gonzalez, a physical, 6-foot-5 central defender, at least double the $257,000 the Galaxy paid him last year.

"I think he has a bright future," says Rodriguez, his uncle who today runs a soccer academy in McAllen, Texas. "To tell you the truth, I think he's going to go play in Europe very soon."

For the time being, however, Gonzalez has more pressing business. After the Galaxy lost the first game of the two-leg CONCACAF playoff to two-time defending champion Monterrey -- in part because of a momentary lapse by Gonzalez that led to Aldo de Nigris' go-ahead goal seconds into stoppage time -- the Galaxy must not only win Wednesday's rematch, but also has to score at least two goals if it hopes to advance.

Then there's the MLS season, in which the unbeaten Galaxy is chasing an unprecedented third consecutive title, not to mention the final seven U.S. matches in World Cup qualifying.

That's a full schedule for a guy who was learning to walk without crutches at this time last year. Which explains why Gonzalez continues to pinch himself to make sure it's not a dream.

"Things have been going well," he says with a smile. "That's the way I see it, and I'm not going to take it any further than that. I like to just stay in the moment and just try to be as humble as possible."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

twitter.com/kbaxter11

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