Omar Gonzalez: The U.S. Team’s Top Defender

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Photograph by Carlos Serrao

The starting central defender for the U.S. soccer team breezes into a Phoenix hotel lobby grinning like a guy who has just come from his honeymoon – which, technically, he has. The 25-year-old married his longtime girlfriend four days earlier, in a three-minute ceremony at a Los Angeles County courthouse, then celebrated with a John Legend concert and a quick trip to Napa. But that's about all the honeymoon he'll get for a while. "Maybe in the off-season," he says, smiling.

Right now his country needs him. As the star center back for the U.S. team, Gonzalez is the linchpin of the American defense, which will have to be outstanding to get past the opening-round assaults of Germany, Portugal, and Ghana in this summer's World Cup. He's been a regular for the squad only since last year, but he's already one of coach Klinsmann's favorites: a 6-foot-5, 205-pound Texan who's built more like a tight end than a soccer player. Decisive and physical, he's the sentinel who patrols the American defense for threats, clearing crosses, winning balls in the air, and generally controlling the pace of the game. "It's a crucial position for any team," Gonzalez says. "The key is just staying consistent and keeping your head screwed on right."

Gonzalez grew up in Dallas, playing with the Dallas Texans, the same club as U.S. captain Clint Dempsey. (He was also kicker for his high school football team and was recruited by at least one Big Ten school.) He was drafted third overall by the L.A. Galaxy in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and went on to become Rookie of the Year. The next two years he was an All-Star, and he helped lead the Galaxy to two consecutive MLS championships – including one in 2012, when he was the finals MVP. A few weeks later, Klinsmann called him up.

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As it happens, this summer will actually be Gonzalez's second time setting foot on a World Cup field. The first was 20 years ago when the tournament was held in the U.S. and Dallas' Cotton Bowl hosted six games. Gonzalez's mother was a volunteer, and he and his siblings got to run around on the field. "The first team I ever played on, when I was four years old, was called Little Brazil," he says. "So to be able to play a World Cup in Brazil is just mind-boggling."

Gonzalez's parents are Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. legally as teenagers. His dad, Adrian, drives a semi; his mother, Maria, teaches kindergarten. Like the rest of the family, Omar grew up cheering for the Americans' cross-border archrivals, and used to spend his summers watching practice and even cleaning players' cleats at Mexican club Monterrey, where his uncle was a star defender and team captain in the 1980s. Though Gonzalez has dual citizenship and could have tried to pursue a career with Mexico, he chose the U.S. – to the slight chagrin of his family, most of whom still root for Mexico. "I think my parents want me to do well," he says, sounding less than certain. "But deep down, I feel like they're a little torn."

There are more than 55 million Latinos living in the U.S., but so far, the national team has never had a breakout Latino star. The culture-straddling Gonzalez – who speaks decent Spanish, loves country music, and is a huge Seinfeld fan (he named his dog Larry David) – might be the first. His national-team career got off to a rocky start with a mistake during his first qualifying match in Honduras, which helped lead to a U.S. loss. But a few weeks later, he answered his critics with a stellar game at Mexico City's feared Estadio Azteca, in which he shut down the Mexican offense en route to a 0–0 draw. It's the kind of performance he'll have to turn in once he's in Brazil, where he'll face off against world-class goal scorers like Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany's Mesut Özil. "Most people think we'll get knocked out early," Gonzalez says. "But we're coming to kick ass. We have all the confidence in the world."

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As a new guy, Gonzalez has yet to feel any real job security: "Even when I have a good game, I never feel quite safe." But he's already shown an ability to take the lead when necessary. During a World Cup qualifying match in September, the U.S. beat Mexico 2–0, and the team retired to their locker room to await the outcome of the Honduras-Panama game, which would determine if they'd earn a World Cup berth. When Honduras eked out a tie, clinching a spot for the U.S., the Americans poured back onto the field to celebrate. As they danced in a circle chanting "U-S-A!," Gonzalez dropped to his knees in the middle of the scrum and guzzled a Bud Light, the Stars and Stripes waving in the background. "It was," he says, grinning, "about as American as you can get."

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