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Wednesday, November 9, 2011
GALAXY: Top defender is ready for U.S.

By Scott French

Omar Gonzalez
Omar Gonzalez says he's focused on MLS Cup and not yet thinking about getting an invitation to U.S. national team camp.

CARSON -- He was Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year in 2009, a Best XI selection last year, and now he's MLS's Defender of the Year.

What more does Omar Gonzalez need to do to make the U.S. national team?

That question was posed to the Galaxy's 6-foot-5 Texan just a few minutes after word came down that he'd won the league's top defensive honor, and Gonzalez, who has made it clear he wants to play for Jurgen Klinsmann, didn't flinch.

“I have no idea,” he said. “I haven't talked to the coaches at all. I'm just worried about winning this MLS Cup and worrying about getting better. I think if I worry about the right things, good things will come. I just have to keep on getting better, and, hopefully, they will notice.”

MLS's best-defender honor, richly reserved, is a good thing, “another step in his development,” in coach Bruce Arena's words, and reward for everyone else whose contributions gave L.A. the league's best record, with fewest goals conceded and 17 shutouts, tying the MLS regular-season mark.

“He deserves it. He's been our rock this year,” said veteran center back/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, Gonzalez's primary mentor in his first three years as a pro. “Add to it the offensive quality, in scoring the goals, and his dominance in the air and his presence and the type of year he's had. I'm really proud of him. He's come a long way.

“And not only that, his consistency has been there this year. That's the one thing that's improved from last year. He's been steady the whole year. ... We're excited for him, we're extremely proud of him, and it's a great honor for all of us that he won.”

Gonzalez, who will lead the Galaxy backline in the Nov. 20 MLS Cup final against Houston at Home Depot Center, outpointed fellow finalists Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, both from Real Salt Lake. The same trio was up for the award last year, and Olave won it.

“I was pretty pumped about it,” he said. “This is a huge award, and it's a great accolade for me personally, to be in my third year here in this league. ... I put a lot of hard work into going into this year, and the hard work paid off, and I'm just really excited and happy that I won this.”

Gonzalez, a first-round draft pick in 2009 out of Maryland, made an impact from his first day in the league, with his size and earnestness, but under Berhalter's and the Galaxy staff's tutelage he has evolved into a multilayered defender whose physical tools have been amplified by a growing facility with the ball -- he and Berhalter worked together on technical areas during the offseason -- and a broader understanding of the game and its tactics.

“It's positioning,” Berhalter said. “He feels more comfortable in his movement. What he sees in front of him makes more sense. He's figured that out quickly.”

Gonzalez, at 23 the youngest winner of the honor in the league's 17 seasons, made 29 regular-season starts this season, playing a dominant role although he bounced from partner to partner. He started with Brazilian Leonardo while Berhalter rehabbed a knee injury, then teamed with former Terrapins roommate A.J. DeLaGarza after a torn ACL sidelined Leonardo, was paired with Berhalter when he was finally healthy and DeLaGarza again with Berhalter ailing in the playoffs.

“I felt more comfortable [this year], I was getting confident throughout the year,” Gonzalez said. “I think when I hit the middle of the season, I got really comfortable, I started making runs with the ball forward and showing I can attack with the ball. I think a lot of areas of my game have improved this year, and I think everyone's taken notice to that.

“I appreciate that. But I'm not ready to stop working after I get this. I'm looking to win it again next year.”

By then, perhaps he'll be in Klinsmann's plans. It's expected he'll get a call-up to the January camp, which under Bob Bradley served as a tryout of sort for MLS players coming off strong campaigns. Gonzalez acknowledged he's talking to his agent about training possibilities abroad during the offseason.

“We'll see what happens,” said Gonzalez, who in late summer acknowledged he'd consider a Mexico call-up if one was offered. “I don't know what my plans are yet. Maybe I'll get the invite. ... I don't know what's going to happen. My only focus right now is winning this Cup and the Galaxy.”

LANDSLIDE? SURE: Gonzalez won big in the media and club tallies but just edged Olave in the player vote. His weighted total was 94.47, followed by Olave (50.74), Borchers (21.50), Philadelphia Carlos Valdes (19.33) and Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant (17.08).

Previous winners include Chivas USA head coach Robin Fraser (in 1999 for the Galaxy and 2004 with Columbus), local products Carlos Bocanegra (2002-03 with Chicago), Jimmy Conrad (2005 with Kansas City) and Chad Marshall (2008-00 with Columbus), Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes (2000 with K.C.), San Jose general manager John Doyle (1996 with San Jose) and former U.S. national team stars Eddie Pope (1997 with D.C.) and Jeff Agoos (2001 with San Jose).

Another former winner is Bobby Boswell (2006 with D.C. United), who will be on Houston's backline in the final.

New England's Zak Boggs was voted Humanitarian of the Year for his work, using his degree in biomedical sciences from South Florida, assisting Children's Hospital Boston in cancer research.

The referee and assistant referee (linesman) of the awards, due to be announced Wednesday, were pushed back a day. Rookie of the Year: C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City)
Defender of the Year: Omar Gonzalez (Galaxy)
Golden Boot: Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United)
Assists leader: Brad Davis (Houston)
Humanitarian of the Year: Zak Boggs (New England Revolution)
Fair Play/Individuals: Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia Union)
Fair Play/Team: Portland Timbers

Coming ...
MLS Best XI (Nov. 10)
Referee of the Year (Nov. 10)
Assistant Referee of the Year (Nov. 10)
Coach of the Year (Nov. 14)
Comeback Player of the Year (Nov. 14)
Newcomer of the Year (Nov. 15)
Goalkeeper of the Year (Nov. 15)
Goal of the Year (Nov. 16)
Save of the Year (Nov. 16)
MVP (Nov. 18)
Commissioner's Award (Nov. 18)