MONTERREY, Mexico – Omar Gonzalez spent many summers and holidays visiting family and playing street soccer in Monterrey as a child. But on Wednesday, Gonzalez will return to Monterrey eager to push the LA Galaxy past his childhood club and into the CONCACAF Champions League Finals.
Monterrey holds a special place for the Gonzalez family as both of Gonzalez’s parents are from the Monterrey metro area and his maternal uncle Everardo “Lalo” Rodriguez Plata was a defensive stalwart and captain of C.F. Monterrey during the 1980’s.
When LA take on Los Rayados in second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals, Gonzalez’s family will be well-represented in the sold-out stands at Estadio Tecnológico as nearly 50 members of his family will be present to support the Galaxy defender.
That Gonzalez makes his return to Monterrey in one of the most important matches of his career is particularly fitting as the 24-year-old spent many formative summers in “The City in the Mountains.”
As a child, trips to Monterrey from his home in Texas were frequent for Gonzalez, who spent a majority of his summers as well as several other holidays bouncing between the houses of his grandparents and cousins in the sun-soaked central Mexican city.
Regardless of when he visited Monterrey, the daily routine was always the same, as he would frequently enjoy a hearty breakfast before joining the neighborhood kids for a little street soccer. Even today as a distinguished professional, Gonzalez looks back at those trips fondly.
“I really enjoyed it,” Gonzalez told LAGalaxy.com. “It was so much fun getting teams together then having to watch out for cars that would come by and making goals out of rocks. Sometimes, the cars would run over the big rocks and that was pretty funny. It was always a good time.”
But it wasn’t always street soccer as Gonzalez, would occasionally spent time with his cousin, Heriberto Ahumada, who served as the kit man at Monterrey before eventually moving on to intra-city rival Tigres UANL. During those visits, the future MLS Defender of the Year was shuttled around Monterrey’s training ground to observe his uncle’s old side.
“We used to go to all of their trainings and I used to watch them practice and watch them play soccer tennis,” said Gonzalez. “I was around it a lot…I just loved being around it.”
Gonzalez’s last trip to Monterrey was not to enjoy street soccer with his friends or observe training sessions, but rather to try his luck at locking down a professional contract with Tigres UNAL following his sophomore season with Maryland.
The defender arrived in Mexico after a successful season with the Terrapins, in which Gonzalez earned the 2007 ACC Defender of the Year honors while leading Maryland to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
To prepare for his trial, Gonzalez practiced several times with his uncle in several one-on-one training sessions designed to help transform Gonzalez from an attacker into a central defender. Lalo had always had a great interest in Gonzalez’s career and would repeatedly tell his sister Maria that her son would be better served manning the back four.
“I do remember, when I had a Monterrey Rayados Academy, when he was in college, he wanted to score goals, and my sister wanted him to score goals,” Rodriguez said. “But I told her; when he gets to the pros he’s going to play center back, not center midfield, not forward. But that doesn’t mean he can’t score goals, right?”
The week-long session was a success for Gonzalez, who impressed the coaches at the Estadio Universitario, but the offer was simply not enough to lure him away from Maryland.
“I just don’t think the contract was good enough for me to leave school so I decided to go back to school and play my junior year, win a national championship, and then I felt I was ready,” said Gonzalez.
Fast forward five years, Gonzalez has certainly earned his worth. Since that trial, the honors have been numerous for the defender as he has racked up a national title with Maryland in 2008, an MLS Rookie of the Year award in 2009, an MLS Defender of the Year award in 2011 and a pair of MLS Cup titles in 2011 and 2012.
Now a regular for the U.S. National Team, the sky appears to be the limit for Gonzalez, who serves as the chief anchor of LA’s back four. However, the series against Monterrey is undoubtedly one of the biggest tests of Gonzalez’s young career.
That does not mean that there are no moments of levity, however, the series has allowed Gonzalez to catch up with a familiar face from his trial at Tigres UNAL in Monterrey striker Aldo De Nigris. Both were still years away from the heights of their career when Gonzalez trialled with Tigres UNAL, but De Nigris was immediately taken with the young defender, whom he labeled “gigante.”
Following the first leg, where De Nigris scored the game-winning-goal goal for Monterrey in a 2-1 Rayados victory, the pair caught up for a few moments as they walked off the field.
“He said, “Remember, we were at Tigres together for a little bit,” Gonzalez recollected. “And then he said that he was happy my career is going so well.”
At Estadio Tecnológico, Gonzalez’s ability to shut down De Nigris and his strike partner Humberto Suazo will be vital to LA’s hopes to advance to the Champions League Finals for the first time in club history. The Mexican media has taken notice of Gonzalez’s return as he was interviewed by his cousin Alejandra Ahumada, now a reporter with MultiMedios, on Tuesday prior to the club’s final training session before Wednesday’s match.
Despite all the family connections that exist with his trip to Monterrey, Gonzalez understands that his primary business isn’t to catch up with relatives, but defeat Los Rayados and advance to the Champions League Finals.
“I’m excited to go there and hopefully win the game. I think that’s the most important part to go there and do our job and what is necessary to get to the next round,” said Gonzalez. “This is really important to us and that is the first thing on our mind is getting the win.”
Gonzalez’s uncle, who will be in the stands on Wednesday supporting the Galaxy, agrees.
“If the Galaxy scores the first goal, then it is game on and they just might comeback,” Rodriguez Plata said. “But if they don’t, and they start playing desperate, then that’s when Monterrey is going to score more goals.”
But whether the Galaxy advance or not, the old Monterrey captain is filled with pride with his young nephew and is fully confident that his career will continue its upward trajectory.
“Like we say in Mexico, ‘the hard part is not getting there, but staying there,” said Rodriguez Plata. “Right now he’s going through a good moments, but he needs to keep thinking that there is still lots to improve on and I think he can achieve whatever he wants because he’s a great human being.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com