MLS defender Omar Gonzalez, the American-born talent with a championship pedigree, defines what the MLS has become in 2012.
Gonzalez does not boast the marketable name of a Thierry Henry, the stupefying statistics of a Chris Wondolowski or even the standing of a Landon Donovan, but his inspiring play in 2012 did more than propel the Los Angeles Galaxy to its fourth MLS title—it encapsulated MLS’s upward trend.
The center back spits in the face of everything MLS is perceived to be amongst the iconoclastic, football elitists of the world.
The be-all and end-all to those unfamiliar with MLS is the designated player. Currently, two of the more prominent designated players are Henry and Robbie Keane.
The two have been stellar since joining MLS, combining for 49 goals and 29 assists since their departure from the Premier League. Nonetheless, they no longer define what the league has evolved from.
MLS is beyond the imported, aging star.
Wondolowski was named the 2012 MLS MVP. His 27-goal performance tied the league record set by Roy Lassiter in 1996—but America celebrates champions, and that is what Wondo failed to deliver in 2012.
The same does not hold true for the 24-year-old defender. It is that championship pedigree that separates Gonzalez from the other candidates worthy of being named the defining player of 2012.
Having said that, 2012 did not exactly start well for Gonzalez.
His season took a near-devastating hit on Jan. 6. Gonzalez's offseason loan to Bundesliga club FC Nürnberg was shorter than an episode of MLS 36. After tearing his ACL during his first training session with the club, Gonzalez was expected to miss nine months.
Medical evaluators could not have been more wrong.
Gonzalez returned to light training in May, resumed full training in mid-June and was taken off the Galaxy’s disabled list on July 3. His absence was calamitous early on for the defending champions. With Gonzalez unavailable for the starting XI, the Galaxy’s shaky defense of their crown started with a 6-9-2 record.
His return altered LA’s fortunes.
Gonzalez’s bruising defense shored up LA’s back four and allowed the team to mount a 10-3-4 run that launched the Galaxy into the playoffs. His presence culminated in another MLS Cup title for LA.
True, that successful run can be attributed to Keane’s return from the 2012 Euro Cup. But Gonzalez’s contributions are undeniable. The Galaxy gave up an average of 1.94 goals a game while Gonzalez recovered from his ACL tear. That average quickly subsided after his return: LA gave up an average of 1.00 goals in the final 12 games of the regular season, including six shutouts.
That’s three more than it had all season.
His performance in the 2012 MLS Cup made him the youngest player to be named MVP since Alecko Eskandarian (DC United) in 2004.
This is the new direction of MLS: Young, home-grown talent capable of playing overseas, elevating the level of play for MLS.
Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler re-signed with the team that drafted him in 2009. But the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year had ample opportunities to play in the Premier League (per soccerbyives.net)
Besler decided it was better to stay stateside than play for a QPR club fighting off relegation.
Teams are even beginning to invest toward the future, domestically. Since the MLS Cup, there have been a slew of home-grown signings:
New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) December 11, 2012
Columbus Crew (@ColumbusCrew) December 13, 2012
Rumors have recently surfaced, linking MLS with the USL Pro in order to procure professional playing time for these young players collecting splinters on the bench.
MLS’s long-term sustainability and success is dependent upon the young talent it develops. Gonzalez’s 2012 performance gives prominence to that investment in young talent coming to fruition.
Repeat performances like the one Gonzalez had in 2012 will elevate the standing of MLS in the world of soccer and define the league in a new light—one that highlights MLS’s ability to develop young talent.
So forget the staggering statistics, the garish contracts and extravagant highlights.
There are elements of Gonzalez’s game that cannot be appreciated under those circumstances. (Drawing a player offside doesn’t exactly captivate the casual soccer fan.)
He may have only played in 14 games in 2012, but no player in MLS had a greater impact on his team—and an entire league, for that matter—than Omar Gonzalez.
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