Pachuca's Omar Gonzalez laying down a model for Americans in Mexico
U.S. center back Omar Gonzalez lifted MLS Cup three times with LA Galaxy and his time with Pachuca since signing in December 2015 is proving just as productive in the trophy department.
On Wednesday, the 28-year-old Texan defender became the first player to win MLS Cup, Liga MX and the CONCACAF Champions League, after the Tuzos overcame Tigres 2-1 on aggregate in Estadio Hidalgo in the CCL final.
"Two championships in one year," Gonzalez told reporters after the game in Spanish, with a wide smile and hint of disbelief. "I can't believe it. I didn't know what would happen when I arrived here."
Gonzalez was again a key figure in nulling Tigres' French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac on Wednesday, but stressed that his teammates deserve praise for working together in a series in which Tigres were the favorites and Pachuca was often forced to be patient and play on the counterattack.
"They couldn't do anything," Gonzalez said. "Gignac hit the frame once, [Jurgen] Damm had another [opportunity], but after that they didn't create."
Presented to the media in Pachuca wearing a bizarre Darth Vader costume, the saxophone-playing 28-year-old's move to Mexico was questioned by some, especially after Gonzalez was heading south after arguably his worst season in MLS. He certainly wasn't considered an automatic starter when he signed for Pachuca.
But any fears about how Gonzalez would fare in Mexico have been well and truly dispelled now. The Texas native should be considered one of the best center backs in the league and has formed a formidable partnership with Colombian Oscar Murillo at the heart of the Pachuca defense. It was central to Pachuca's victory over Tigres.
Gonzalez has adapted to Liga MX's more technical style with ease and has been comfortable playing out from the back in the way Uruguayan manager Diego Alonso likes. Gonzalez doesn't over complicate things, but he also isn't afraid to push the ball into midfield or down the wings. And then the physical side of the game was never likely to be problematic for the 6-foot-5 defender, although it was highlighted as wave after wave of Tigres crosses seemed to be magnetically drawn to Gonzalez's head on Wednesday.
"The [Mexican] league is very good, coming here is difficult and I think that I'm getting better as a player every day," Gonzalez said last July.
That seems to have continued since.
A key part of Gonzalez's success has been choosing the right club. Many of Mexico's top-flight clubs are carousels, with managers jumping on and off and players shifting around the league each offseason. It is difficult to settle at such an institution as an incoming foreigner. Not Pachuca. The model of the organization is outstanding in many ways -- particularly in youth production -- and there is no doubt that Pachuca will have done its homework in extensively scouting Gonzalez before bringing him in.
Gonzalez's family -- who sent him a heartwarming message ahead of the CCL -- appear to have settled well in a town of almost 300,000 people that is located about 80 kilometers north of Mexico City. There are also English-speakers inside the club, like sporting director Marco Garces.
Gonzalez's coach Alonso is an impressive figure. He's only 42 years old, but is gathering a reputation as a manager with a big future. The same can be said for a number of Pachuca's players. Question marks remain over whether Hirving Lozano will still be with the Tuzos when the Club World Cup swings around in December in the United Arab Emirates. Then there are others like midfielder Erick Gutierrez, Murillo, Jonathan Urretaviscaya and even Gonzalez, who have previously said he'd like to play in Europe.
"How to keep them with the offers that will come in is a question for the owner," Alonso said after Wednesday's game. "Planning for the future, the best reinforcement isn't a player from outside, but maintaining the base of the team."
In all likelihood, Gonzalez and most of Pachuca's players will remain, with the exception being Lozano, for whom a move to Europe this summer would seem inevitable.
In a league that doesn't get an awful lot of international attention -- even though it has now provided the winner of CONCACAF's club competition for the past 12 years -- Gonzalez's success provides a link and window for fans, especially those with an interest in the U.S. national team.
It seems a bit of a shame, therefore, that with Liga MX's recent 10/8 rule that a dual citizen like Gonzalez is counted as a foreigner, because he wasn't registered with the Mexican federation by his 19th birthday. It is something that is counterproductive to Liga MX's apparent internationalization and is an added complication when it comes to Mexican-American players moving to Mexico.
More players like Gonzalez in Mexico means more interest in Liga MX from fans in the United States and that should be encouraged as much as possible. Club World Cup bound Gonzalez is the shining example of that right now.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.