Gonzalez: It's a very emotional moment
Although hard to imagine, Omar Gonzalez almost managed to steal team-mate David Beckham's thunder in the MLS Cup on Saturday evening. While most eyes were on the former England captain as he played his last game for Los Angeles Galaxy, the unheralded defender was writing the final chapter of a story of his own as he helped his team to secure a well-deserved win.
Back at the end of 2008, the California side were still waiting for their first title since the arrival of Beckham, and frustration levels had reached an all-time high after a mediocre season. Coach Bruce Arena had been taken on a year earlier to make the most of the former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder and get a return on the enormous investment the club had made. And he certainly made a bold move, getting rid of no fewer than 19 players.
"We decided to rebuild everything from scratch, helped by the fact that with David and Landon [Donovan], we had two key pieces already," said the former USA coach.
A few days later, the Galaxy acquired a 20-year-old centre-back, fresh out of the US college championship, by the name of Omar Gonzalez. He could not have realised it at the time, joining a team that was undergoing a complete rebuild, but it was the start of an amazing period for the youngster. In relative anonymity, Gonzalez went from strength to strength over four seasons before rounding it all off on 1 December 2012 in the City of Angels, where he won his second MLS Cup and was named man of the match just four months after coming back from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.
"It's a very emotional moment – after my injury, I never thought I'd experience something like this," said the Texan barely an hour after the Galaxy's 3-1 win over Houston Dynamo. "I never thought for a second that when I made my comeback this season, I'd be MVP in the final.
"After my operation last winter I really had my doubts. I was seriously wondering what kind of level I would be able to play at again. I didn't know whether I'd get back to being the player that I was before my injury," added an obviously relieved Gonzalez, whom Arena believes will be a fixture at international level for years to come.
And among the champagne, laughter and triumph in the locker room at the Home Depot Center, the depths of his recent despair already seemed a distant memory.
Having been voted best defender in the MLS in 2011, Gonzalez suffered a serious left-knee injury after his first training session in the Bundesliga during a try-out with Nuremberg. He went under the knife on 13 January and though doctors estimated that he would be out for seven to nine months, he was training again at the end of May. By mid-June he was back in the first team squad, and on 28 July he started his first match after the injury, in his home city of Dallas.
Was it just a coincidence that as soon as 'Gonzo' returned, a team that had been on the point of meltdown two months previously suddenly started showing championship form?
"When I started my individual training again, the team wasn't at its best," said Gonzalez, whose parents moved to the USA from Mexico. "I was only there once a week, but I could see that they were having problems. And then in the middle of the season, everything changed. We got the right attitude back, we started fighting for one another, and that helped us become the best team in the country once again."
The 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year was at the back for six of the nine clean sheets which the Galaxy kept, but it was his game-changing headed goal when the team met Houston Dynamo for the second consecutive MLS Cup final that will go down in the history books.
"One chance came and went, and David [Beckham] told him to attack more on set-pieces," explained Landon Donovan after the match. "The next time we got a corner, he took his chance and scored the goal that changed the match."
Arena had already told his men at half-time: "If we can get an equaliser, plenty more goals will follow."
Gozalez remarked: "We knew we'd win, nobody panicked. I'm good in the air, it's one of my strengths. I know I'm back to where I was before the injury, but the best is yet to come."