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Omar Gonzalez back in Klinsmann's good books after Liga MX move

MIAMI -- When Omar Gonzalez was left off the United States national team's roster for last year's high-stakes CONCACAF Cup grudge match against Mexico, it felt like rock-bottom for the then-LA Galaxy center-back.

Gonzalez turned 27 the day after the Americans' 2-1 loss, still a year or two shy of his prime, yet the man who had started two World Cup games in Brazil the previous summer -- including the second round defeat by Belgium -- wasn't even deemed worthy of a spot on the bench versus El Tri.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made several controversial decisions during his four-plus years in charge, but this wasn't one of them. Gonzalez's play with the Galaxy noticeably depreciated as the 2015 season wore on. LA sputtered toward the finish line, and in their knockout-round playoff match against fellow big-spending rival Seattle Sounders, Gonzalez and the Galaxy back line got torched for two goals in the first 12 minutes plus the hosts' eventual second half winner.

In short, Gonzalez -- for years one of the most dominant center-backs in MLS -- lost his mojo. The imposing Texan looked like a guy who needed a change of scenery after seven years in sunny Southern California. He got it in December, via transfer to Mexican club Pachuca. And almost immediately, the Gonzalez of old reappeared.

"It's a different dynamic in Mexico, different lifestyle, different everything," Gonzalez, who Klinsmann recalled to the U.S. team ahead of this month's two World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala, said before the squad trained on Monday.

"I've had to just be ready for anything, and I think that's gotten me to the position where I have to be ready to go every single day."

It's no secret that with few exceptions, MLS teams don't spend what their top-flight counterparts south of the border do on payrolls. Sure, many American and Canadian clubs boast a few high-priced stars -- Gonzalez was making seven figures with the Galaxy.

The difference is the depth. In MLS, Gonzalez knew he was starting if he was healthy. Perhaps complacency crept into his game. But it's been different story since he joined the second-place Tuzos, who the new recruit has helped to the stingiest defensive record in Liga MX.

"To be honest, we have like five center-backs who can play in my spot, so I have to be 'on' every single day and make sure that my game is right, because they could step in and just take my position," Gonzalez said when asked why the move has brought out the best in him.

"That's the way it is. It's more competitive."

So is he. And by extension, so is the U.S.

Omar Gonzalez
Pachuca center-back Omar Gonzalez has settled in well to life in the Liga MX.

NOTES

- Defender/midfielder Fabian Johnson (groin) and playmaker Darlington Nagbe (ankle) were limited to gym work Monday after picking up injuries over the weekend. A U.S. Soccer spokesman said that both players are considered day-to-day prospects for the upcoming matches.

- On Sunday, Clint Dempsey was named to his first U.S. roster since October. On Monday, before the Americans worked out at Barry University, he spoke about being back with the national team.

"I'm happy to be part of these important games," said Dempsey, who was passed over by Klinsmann when the Americans kicked off 2018 qualifying last November with games against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and at Trinidad and Tobago.

Asked if he wondered about his international future at the time, the recently turned 33-year-old-the Americans second all-time scoring leader -- deftly deflected the question.

"It's not really up to me," he said. "I mean it is, but it isn't. It is in the sense you have to keep working hard and playing. But at the end of the day, it's up to the coaching staff to make decisions."

Still, since the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup, Dempsey has targeted the Copa America Centenario as perhaps a final international swansong. Given that this is the final U.S. camp before Klinsmann selects his squad, the stakes are high.

"You want to be performing well going onto Copa America," Dempsey said. "It's a major tournament and an opportunity to do something great on home soil."

- Jozy Altidore saw his first action of the new MLS season on Sunday night, coming on as a late sub in Toronto FC's 1-0 loss in Kansas City. Altidore had been nursing a tender hamstring for a month, and with his match fitness in question, Bobby Wood could earn a spot in Klinsmann's lineup.

"If I'm asked to start I'll do my job as best I can," said Wood, who has 14 goals in the German second tier this season. "When it's going in like that, you've got a lot of confidence."

- Eighteen of the 26 players called in by Klinsmann had reported by Monday morning. Seven others were scheduled to arrive later in the day after playing for their clubs on Sunday, as was defender Edgar Castillo, whose original flight was cancelled.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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