Omar Gonzalez didn’t think he would be getting his first start against La Selecao.
Most thought he might get a call-up into the camp, and some fans thought he might even see some action on the back end of the Brazil friendly.
He did get a call-up, but only after Columbus Crew’s Chad Marshall had to back out due to injury.
Not only did the 6’5” LA Galaxy defender get his first cap against Brazil, but he started for the Americans and went the full 90 in New Jersey.
Although the US did give up a pair of goals to a very dangerous Brazilian squad, Gonzalez had really a very solid first experience on the international level.
From a positioning standpoint, Gonzalez did a very commendable job. Having only had one day to practice with an entirely new group of teammates, “Gonzo” actually performed quite well.
He had very little time to establish any kind of understanding with his partner in the back, captain Carlos Bocanegra, and managed not to find himself at fault for either of Brazil’s goals.
Gonzalez was rarely caught out of position, and in those instances, he tracked back quickly and ensured that the opposition could not get off a clean shot.
What Gonzalez lost on that first step, he made up for in physicality and doing the simple things right; putting himself between the ball and the net. 6’5” of defender is a pretty large thing to overcome for most attackers.
Let’s put things in just a bit of perspective, too. One of the biggest knocks against Gonzalez was the fact that, as a very tall defender, he may not be able to match the speed of smaller strikers.
On a night when he faced a couple of the fastest young guys in the world, Chelsea-linked Santos star Neymar among them, and the always dangerous speedster Robinho, Gonzalez did not find himself unable to keep up.
Even further, it is absolutely never an easy thing to earn your first international appearance against a phenomenal side like Brazil.
Gonzalez managed to insert himself into the squad and not look out of place against a high-caliber lineup. That’s worth a nod in his direction at the very least.
It isn’t as if this is a one-off observation, either. In the last few weeks, Gonzalez has performed well against some of the best competition in the world.
He faced off against Manchester United with the MLS All Stars in Houston and later started for the Galaxy against Real Madrid.
If there are a much better grouping three teams to test a player’s quality against, they don’t readily come to mind. Gonzalez earned high marks in each of those encounters.
Oh, one last thing. He got praise out of Tim Howard, one of the best ‘keepers on the planet who is also notorious for his tough but fair assessments of his back line.
Howard said when interviewed, “…I thought he played well. Didn’t think he made many, if any mistakes…so this is a good start for him…and he didn’t disappoint.”
That’s pretty high praise for a 21-year-old who just got his first cap and first start.
A lot has been made of the potential problems that the US defense will face moving into the next qualification/World Cup cycle. They will likely lose three of their World Cup starters in Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, and Jay DeMerit.
The US will need two new wing backs and at least one center back, potentially two depending on Oguchi Onyewu’s status in 2014.
The US may find themselves needing to field a back line in 2014 with no World Cup experience
On the evidence above, the US defense is not in nearly the sort of dire straits that have been heralded.
Gonzalez is obviously good enough right now to play in full international games against highly skilled players.
It would be naïve to assume that European clubs haven’t taken notice of his skills, and he certainly has a chance to make a move abroad after the MLS season comes to a close.
Behind Gonzalez on the future radar are Gale Agbossoumonde, Chad Marshall, Eric Lichaj, and Kevin Alston (more on the last two a little later).
Agbossoumonde recently captained the U-20 Milk Cup side to a tournament victory, scoring and displaying great poise out of the back.
He asserted himself on the pitch and locked dominated in the air. He will certainly get a chance to earn a place with the big boys in the coming months, perhaps appearing in the senior side camp as early as January.
He earned the nickname "Boss" for his commanding play from the back.
Marshall is a former MLS Defender of the Year and was a part of the 30-man World Cup camp roster.
Although he has had a rockier season this time around due mostly to lingering injuries, he is another defender who is very smart positionally.
Another plus with Marshall is his toughness in the box, especially in defending against set pieces.
The capability of both men at the back should be assurance enough for all of the American faithful that the center back position is already in young but capable hands.
New York Red Bull rookie Tim Ream is another young player who is making a very loud case for inclusion in the national team setup moving forward.
Heralded by several well respected pundits as having the potential to be named Rookie of the Year, Ream’s first season in the professional ranks has been stellar so far.
Last season, the Red Bulls’ defense was simply horrid. This season, they have improved drastically, and Ream has played in 14 of New York’s 19 league matches thus far.
Ream has become a defensive fixture for New York, combining speed with good aerial skills. At 6’1”, Ream has an excellent ability to combine his height with a great sense of positioning.
That sense of positioning led his club manager, Hans Backe, to claim that he plays similar to a European center back. This is certainly high praise.
On the wings, the Americans have some interesting options, as well. Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein may have underwhelmed against Brazil, but both of them are starters for their club squads.
Spector plays regularly in several positions along the back line for West Ham United in the Premier League and Bornstein will be lacing his boots up in the Mexican League next season.
Joining them in consideration is another Mexican League regular in Edgar Castillo. Depending on the managerial situation for the US, Castillo may find himself with another chance to impress in the future.
Again, there is youth to be on the lookout for on at the wing back positions in Alston and Lichaj.
Alston has been a starter for New England Revolution of the MLS for the past two seasons and earned himself a place on the All Star Team to face Manchester United.
Alston’s most beneficial trait is his sheer tenacity. He doesn’t like to get beat, period.
And you can be sure that if he gets turned by an attacker, he’ll be harassing him mercilessly until he has regained a better defensive position.
Lichaj began to crop up on the radar while in college at the University of North Carolina. After his freshman year, he took off for Aston Villa of the Premier League.
In that time, he has bounced around from training with the Villa first team to several loan spells.
Just days ago, Lichaj signed a three-year contract to remain at Villa Park, despite the managerial controversy left in the wake of Martin O’Neill’s departure.
Both Lichaj and Alston could play at either wing back position for the Americans, helping to shore up a problematic area.
To be fair, there are obviously a great deal of uncertainties regarding the back line at the moment.
But the US appears to have enough depth and highly talented youth to assuage most fears. Certainly Gonzalez has done his part in playing solidly against Brazil.