On and off the field with World Cup team member and LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez
At 25, the former Major League Soccer (MLS) “Defender of the Year” Omar Gonzalez recently represented the U.S. in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, helping push the team out of the daunting first bracket into the semifinals. Currently he’s putting his soccer skills to good use with the LA Galaxy as a centerback while preparing his Manhattan Beach home with his wife, Erica, for the arrival of their first child. Omar took some time to share his thoughts with us about the South Bay, preparing to be a dad, his early years training and playing soccer, and the growing popularity of soccer in both the South Bay and the nation.
Hey, Omar, thanks for meeting with us. Where are you from originally?
Omar Gonzalez: I’m from Dallas, born and raised there. My parents are from Mexico, from Monterrey.
How young were you when you first played soccer?
OG: I started playing soccer at 4 years old. My parents took me to a local park, and I got on a team there. Haven’t looked back since. For my family I have three other siblings, and my parents said, “We want you to go to college, and you’re going to do that by getting a scholarship.” They didn’t make a lot of money, but they worked really hard to get us to where we are. All of us got scholarships to college, so it all worked out.
That’s excellent. Where did you end up going?
OG: I went to the University of Maryland.
Did you have any soccer idols back then?
OG: I didn’t really have any. Not that I can remember. My dad watched a lot of Mexican soccer, and I don’t know, I always loved playing it. My uncle played in the 1980s for Monterrey in Mexico, so I’ve always had this dream to become a professional soccer player. My mom volunteered during the ‘94 World Cup, so I got to go to a couple of games at the Cotton Bowl, and I told my mom that “I’m going to be out there one day.” I’ve always had that dream. I just know that it left a lasting impression.
Growing up, how significant was soccer in your life? Was it pretty much non-stop from the moment you woke up until you went to bed?
OG: Yeah, I played a rec ball until 10 years old, and then I moved to club soccer. That’s when, well, it was always serious. It was always important to me, but once I reached club soccer, my family couldn’t afford it—playing for the Dallas Texans is very expensive—and so a family offered to pay for me, and I was playing on a scholarship. So at that point, it’s like you’re not just playing for fun—people are offering to put up their money for you, so you got to continue to work hard. So I was training every single day, doing skill sessions and practice right after that and trying to find practices with the older teams, so …
That’s a lot of pressure on someone who’s still growing up.
OG: It never felt like pressure. It was always something I wanted to do. I spent a lot of weekends with other families. My siblings were playing other sports, so my parents were driving them to their practices. And so when we had weekend tournaments somewhere I would be with other families. That was probably the most difficult thing—not having my parents there for games and on the road. I think the first time they went on a road trip with me was 2005 for the U-17 World Championship in Peru. That was one of the first ones that they got to go.
What did playing in the World Cup mean to you?
OG: Overall it was a lifelong dream being lived out and being realized—getting to bring my parents along and pay for their tickets and for them to enjoy it and watch their son playing for his country and representing it and playing with all his heart. I mean they worked hard their whole lives to help us succeed, and this was a way to pay them back—to get out there and play at the highest level.
Did your wife also go to cheer you on?
OG: Yeah, my wife was there. My wife and my parents. I just had three family members. It was amazing. It was the best experience that I ever had.
As a spectator, there were plenty of dazzling moments, but was there one that stood out for you?
OG: Just getting the start against Germany, I think. My family actually missed the game because the weather was bad and there was a lot of flooding. So yeah, they actually missed that one. They were all huddled around in the bus, stuck on the road, watching on their phones—at least that was a cool experience for them, finding a way to watch the game.
Were you battling nerves before that game?
OG: What made the World Cup such a cool experience for me was it was a test, both mentally and physically. Mentally, because I lost my starting spot … I didn’t play the first two games. And at that point someone might go the other way and just get pissed off and not support their teammates … but that wasn’t me. I felt like I handled the situation well, and I kept training hard. And when my name got called, I stepped up and performed. That was the most rewarding thing—going through those hardships and coming out on top.
How do you feel the American team did overall?
OG: I feel like we did a good job. We got out of the “group of death,” which is something that people weren’t counting us on doing. We almost pulled off a win against Belgium. Obviously there’s always progress to be made and strides to keep hitting. We have another four years to do better. Soccer is growing so much in this country that it’s going to happen. We’re going to keep on getting better and better.
Soccer appears to be growing in popularity. Do you agree?
OG: Definitely. It’s growing with the fan base and the amount of teams in the league. The league is doing well. There’s no sign of slowing down. There’s a lot of money being put in—not just into the league but also on the youth level and the academies. And that’s the way you build a better soccer nation—by developing your
youth. It’s great to see. I don’t know how many years it’s going to take, but we’ll be right up there with football, basketball and baseball.
The other thing that helps us grow is that the fan base is getting younger. It used to be that the fan base was older, but now you’re seeing kids wearing their jerseys and going to games. And when they’re older, they’ll take their kids to the games—and that’s how you build a generational fan base. And that’s the way that things keep getting better.
Do you feel that there’s a big soccer fan base here in the South Bay? Especially for the LA Galaxy?
OG: I think there is. Not just for MLS, but also internationally. A lot of people follow European soccer. But I think now that those people who would only follow European soccer are saying that the MLS is getting better, we’re becoming fans of this league as well. Support your local team and go out to some local games. It’s a lot of fun.
Who or what do you think has done the most for soccer in this nation?
OG: I think it’s more of a collective effort, especially when it comes to growing the league. I mean, obviously Landon has been an incredible driving force to help grow the league and soccer. It’s a sad year now that he’s retiring, but now it’s someone else’s time to step up and be that face.
It’s also great because a lot of the national team players are coming back to the league to play at home. That means that a lot of the fans of the national team don’t have to look to Europe to see them play; they can watch them play in their own backyard. They can go and watch them play 20 minutes from their house—they don’t have to wait for those one-off games.
When you’re about to play for the LA Galaxy, do you have any pre-game rituals?
OG: I did, but I’m trying to get rid of them. I pretty much do the same thing every day: I wake up, make breakfast, and I like to go to the El Segundo driving range at The Lakes and just hit like 70 balls and get moving in the morning.
OG: If it’s an average day, I come in to the stadium at 8 a.m. and go into the gym, light lift session and start training. I’m usually done by 12:30 p.m.
Any long-term career goals?
OG: Winning a couple of championships is always up there. But for future goals, we’re looking pretty good right now. I would like to get another MLS cup under my belt, and it would be great to send Landon off like that. I don’t know what the future holds. I’m just looking to continue being consistent and play well.
How would you describe your playing style?
OG: I can read the game pretty well. My aerial game is strong. I’m one of the leaders on the back line.
Did you ever consider playing abroad?
OG: That’s still an option. I don’t want to do hypotheticals.
It sounds like you like to be focused on the immediate.
OG: I like to take it one day at a time and be in the here-and-now. That’s what I’m all about.
What do you love about living in the South Bay?
OG: I love it. Since I’ve moved here to LA, I’ve only lived in the South Bay and recently bought a home here in Manhattan Beach. I love the restaurants; I love how laid-back people are and how active people are too. That’s always good.
You’re going to be a new parent soon—are you looking forward to raising your child here?
OG: Of course. It’s a great place to raise a kid. It’s great because the place where we just moved in Manhattan Beach, well, there’s tons of kids running around and parents running in front of cars that are going too fast, telling them to slow down. It’s just a really cool area, and I just love the South Bay.
If you weren’t going to be a professional soccer player, what else would you be doing?
OG: It’s always been soccer, but now that I’m getting older, I have other interests. I like to dabble in some cooking. I have a long way to go to do anything in that field though.
More than a pipe dream.