U.S. vs. Chile a chance for Omar Gonzalez, Ethan Horvath to make an impression
HOUSTON -- Just about every international player comes into a national team camp with something to prove, though their motivations vary. For an established veteran, it's about showing that he is still deserving of his place. Meanwhile, younger players want to establish themselves and make their case for additional minutes. Then there are the in-between players, those who were once regulars but are not trying to get back in the frame.
The current U.S. national team camp features a pair of players, defender Omar Gonzalez and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who have ridden the ups and downs and are hoping to play key roles in Tuesday's friendly against Chile (7:55 p.m. ET, ESPN2). With Tyler Adams released early and Weston McKennie out injured, the opportunities are there for other squad members to shine.
Omar Gonzalez is back, but will he stick around?
For the first time in 17 months, Gonzalez is back with the U.S. men's national team, and an undercurrent of excitement is evident as he settles into his chair. His old mentor from his LA Galaxy days, Gregg Berhalter, is now the U.S. manager. There is also a new generation of young talent coming through. Yet for Gonzalez, the past -- a painful one at that -- is never far away.
The last time he suited up for the U.S. was on the darkest day the national team program has experienced: the 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago that eliminated the U.S. from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Gonzalez was front and center in the U.S. team's defeat that night. It was his own goal -- a shanked clearance from a deflected cross that looped over goalkeeper Tim Howard and into the back of the U.S. net -- that set T&T on its way. Afterward, Gonzalez apologized to the U.S. fans and called it the "worst day of my career."
Even now, the emotional scar from that night is still there. Like physical scars, most of the time Gonzalez doesn't feel it, yet sometimes it itches, and there are times when it hurts. The sport stops for no one, however, and Gonzalez has moved forward for the simple reason that he had to.
"It's definitely lingered," Gonzalez said of the memory of that night. "It stayed with me a long time. I don't think I'll ever be over it, but I am past it emotionally. As an athlete, you can't stay with those things too long, or you lose what you're doing at the moment. I still have teammates that rely on me to do my job on the field at my club. If I were to let it affect me for too long, it would affect my club career.
"You have to deal with those emotions and things but still find a way to be on [form] for your club. That's what I had to deal with."
The experience led to considerable introspection for Gonzalez. He's a player who has won just about everywhere he has gone, whether in college, MLS or Liga MX. But in the aftermath of that night, he was inspired to take further action. With the help of Berhalter, Gonzalez hired a consultant to look at the tactical aspects of his game, including his positioning with and without the ball. He dedicated himself to shoring up his technical weaknesses, in particular his distribution.
"I think playing-wise, I'm a totally different player than I was a year-and-a-half ago," he said in a roundtable with reporters. "I've really put in the work to improving where people might think I had many faults. I really took a look at myself and thought, 'Where can I improve on my game and the things that I do well? Can I do those even better? Can I improve the things I don't do so well?'
"It's been hard work. But that's the great part of doing what you love and mastering your craft. It's a daily grind of putting in the work."
That ability to grind through difficult moments is something Gonzalez has honed in recent months. Atlas is one of Liga MX's lesser-known teams, operating in the shadow of city rivals Chivas. Los Rojinegros haven't won a league title since 1951 and currently sit fourth from the bottom in the Liga MX standings. Yet Gonzalez's progress was enough to catch the eye of Berhalter, whose history with the defender goes back to 2009.
Gonzalez was a rookie with the Galaxy that season. Berhalter was brought in by then-manager Bruce Arena to provide veteran leadership, and he soon took Gonzalez under his wing. The relationship has lasted well beyond the three seasons the two spent together in Los Angeles.
"I was able to see Omar grow as both a player and a person, up close and personal," Berhalter said. "I think his maturity is what impressed me most and his understanding of what it takes to be a pro, as well as his dedication to putting everything you can into making the most out of your career. That's what I've seen with Omar."
It's fair to wonder how much of a future Gonzalez, 30, has with the national team. But even as the defender has come in from the cold, he's intent on not looking too far ahead. That said, after being there for the U.S. team's lowest point, he'd like to stick around for its recovery.
"I think we can change the narrative and change the way the world thinks about U.S. soccer," he said.
Horvath gets guidance from a legend to take the next step
For Horvath, his time with Club Brugge has seen him experience the full range of the team's depth chart. He began last season as the starter and then fell out of favor due to poor form for six months, only to come back again. Even this season, he has been riding the fine edge between backup and starter. Horvath was consigned to backup duty for the first three months of the campaign before becoming the starter at the end of October. Since then, he has shown his quality, delivering a spectacular performance for the U.S. in a 1-0 loss to Italy in November.
Horvath has made his mark at the highest level as well, recording three consecutive shutouts in the UEFA Champions League against Monaco, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid. Against Dortmund, Horvath prevented international teammate Christian Pulisic from scoring a potential winner.
"I didn't even know it was him until he told me after the game," Horvath told reporters last week. "I thought it was their striker. After the game, he came to me and said, 'Why'd you have to save that?' It happened so fast, I didn't even know it was him. It was a real special night."
Ahead of Tuesday's friendly against Chile, Horvath revealed that a conversation way back in preseason with Bayern Munich keeper Manuel Neuer helped set the stage for his bounce-back campaign. Both Club Brugge and Bayern Munich spent part of preseason in Qatar, and Horvath sought out the Bayern legend.
"That [talk] was a little bit about everything," Horvath told ESPN FC. "It wasn't just about soccer. We talked about everyday life. It was stuff to help me and what he's gone through as well to see if it would [apply] to myself."
The connection between the two keepers has continued in the months since, with Horvath sending a video to Neuer to get his feedback on things such as his positioning and how he uses his body in situations. Yet the mental aspect of the game is where Horvath thinks he made considerable progress, especially in terms of shaking off mistakes.
"I'm only 23, and I'm still at such a young age for a goalkeeper, but it's difficult," he said of navigating the occasional error. "As I've gotten older and played more [higher-level] games, if something does happen, you've just got to forget about it and move on because maybe you still have to make a save in the game, or maybe something still has to be done in the game to help your team out."
Manager Gregg Berhalter said during his news conference that Horvath would start in Tuesday's friendly against Chile. That was news to Horvath, as passed through the mixed zone on Monday, but he's ready for any eventuality.
"If I am [starting], it's a good feeling," he said. "I don't know 100 percent, but if not, I'll support the team 100 percent. It's a great opportunity."
A solid performance against Chile could see Horvath make a big impression on Berhalter, too.
"I think it's wide-open," Horvath said last week of the competition among U.S. goalkeepers. "All we can do is come into training, and whoever plays the game, just show Gregg and the coaching staff that we're ready."