Terrapins' Gonzalez Has Bright Future on Defense

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski entered the recruiting chase for Omar Gonzalez four years ago and saw a player who wanted to attack. He watched Gonzalez maneuver his 6-foot-5 frame, uncommon size in a sport without physical prerequisite, through the heart of midfield for his youth club in Texas and serve as a big target on the U.S. under-17 national team's front line.

But as far as Gonzalez's place in the Terrapins' lineup, Cirovski didn't see a future midfielder or forward. He saw a defender.

"The more I saw him, I became more and more convinced that he could have a future beyond Maryland as a center back," Cirovski recalled this week. "I knew it was going to take some time to refine his skills, but you've seen a progression every year: good, better, best. It's been a great evolution."

In his third season, Gonzalez is among the nation's premier defenders and, with a victory by the second-seeded Terrapins (20-3) today against seventh-seeded Creighton (16-1-2) at Ludwig Field, he will return home to Dallas next weekend for the NCAA College Cup semifinals.

After an adjustment period as a freshman, Gonzalez was the Atlantic Coast Conference's defensive player of the year in 2007. This season, he has both polished his defensive work and returned to his offensive roots with five goals, third best on the team, after scoring just two in his first two seasons. Last Saturday, Gonzalez's early header was the opening strike in a 2-1 victory over California.

"I always liked midfield because that was where I could get the ball the most. I love attacking," he said. "It was kind of hard [moving to defense]. It took some time to get used to the position and liking it there. But I think I have come into my own, and I really appreciate the position and what it is going to do for me."

It has done for him what a few seasons playing at Maryland did for many Terrapins during Cirovski's 16 years: prepare him to leave school early and pursue a pro career. He would probably be a high pick in next month's MLS draft, but also might have options abroad. Before committing to Maryland, Gonzalez said he weighed an offer to join the Tigres youth academy in Monterrey, Mexico, his parents' home town.

He would not be the first pro athlete in his family -- or the largest. His brother, Adrian, a 6-5, 320-pound lineman from Louisiana Tech, was signed by the Redskins as an undrafted free agent in 2005 but did not make the final roster. He has spent three years in the Arena Football League.

Omar was a place kicker at Skyline High School in Dallas but excelled in soccer and parlayed his performances with the Dallas Texans, an elite club team, and regional squads into an invitation to the U.S. Soccer Federation's under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. His teammates on the 2005 Under-17 World Cup squad in Peru included Maryland teammate Jeremy Hall (team-high 14 goals this year), Jozy Altidore (Spanish club Villarreal) and Neven Subotic (Germany's Borussia Dortmund).

Gonzalez did experiment on defense with the Texans, and because of his size, he came to realize his future was on the back line. Since arriving in College Park, he has started in all of Maryland's 66 matches. Oddly, despite his height, heading the ball was one of his weaknesses. His defensive heading improved last year and his offensive heading became a weapon on set pieces this fall.

"The hardest part was not wanting to attack all the time," he said of the permanent move to defense. "My freshman year, I was making three runs up field. I had to learn that I'm a defender first, attacker second. Whenever I made a run, I'd get tired and it hurt me on defense. A 60-yard run takes a lot out of you and makes it harder to make a tackle."

Gonzalez's college career hit a lull in spring practice this year. Disappointed by the effort, Cirovski and some of the Maryland veterans initiated a candid talk with the defender.

"They really put it in perspective for me that I need to work hard all the time," he said. "It affected me. It lit a fire under me and made me want to do more for the team this fall."

The next day, "he was the most dominant player we've ever had in a practice," Cirovski said, "and he has carried it through to this season."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company