June 13 (UPI) — Somewhere, trapped in Omar Gonzalez’s mind is a 17th minute he won’t soon forget.
And neither will fans of the United States Men’s National Team as they watch a pool of 32 countries clash for World Cup glory starting Thursday in Russia. A World Cup without the United States for the first time since 1986.
A tournament without “One Nation, One Team” banners and “I believe that we will win” chants.
Gonzalez can’t shake the own goal he scored on Oct. 10. It was the first score in a last-gasp World Cup qualifying bout against Trinidad and Tobago, putting his team down in a game that needed to result in a draw for the USMNT to clinch a spot among the world’s elite. The scoreboard at Ato Boldon Stadium flickered with a 2-1 loss before it went dark that night, like the USMNT’s aspirations to make history in Russia.
“It was probably the most disappointing night of my career,” Gonzalez told UPI. “What happened to me with the own goal, not qualifying … the fan reaction. It was just a very disappointing night.”
“Obviously, very sad and it will take a long time to get over that. But we play for different clubs and I had to go back to my club team where teammates rely on me. You have to move on as quickly as possible.
“But it still pops up … That night. It pops up in your head and you have to deal with those emotions.”
Gonzalez attempts to fill that space with training for play in Mexico’s Liga MX. The former Los Angeles Galaxy star is also working with Clamato Michelada to give fans ideas for how to have the best viewing party for the World Cup this summer.
He will cheer on several past and present teammates at the World Cup as they suit up for Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and other squads.
Not playing in the tournament also gives Gonzalez, his teammates and the brain trust of U.S. Soccer time to analyze what is missing from the program.
Feel of failure
A jersey-wearing Christian Pulisic stood in the shower crying after the USMNT’s backbreaking loss on the island country off of the coast of Venezuela. The American soccer phenom scored the only goal in the setback, trying to will his team to Russia. Pulisic, 19, is small in stature, but a giant symbol for what the USMNT could become.
Gonzalez remembers seeing hope vanish from the faces of teammates as they found out they weren’t going to Russia. Some screamed with anger. Others sat speechless.
“No one knows what to say,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone is just trying to deal with their own emotions and how to deal with that at that particular moment. It was the lowest of lows for our team … for every single guy in that room. I don’t want to experience that ever again and I don’t want any future player to experience that either.”
Passion painted the walls of the room that night for the wrong reasons and Gonzalez acknowledges that missing the World Cup was a setback. But he maintains that the team is trending upward.
“It’s never guaranteed,” he said. “Argentina almost didn’t make this World Cup … Every team deals with these issues.”
“With all of the changes we’ve made, I think we are going to get back on the right path. Everyone has been seeing these young players that have been wearing our jerseys the last couple of weeks. It’s very exciting to see all of these young players and their ability and see what they bring to the future of the U.S. men’s team.”
Omar Gonzalez (L) of Team USA competes with Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Group G match at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil. File Photo by Chris Brunskill/UPI
One nation, three coaches
Gonzalez has had three coaches since he made his senior team debut for the USMNT in 2010. He began with Bob Bradley, before playing under former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann and returning USMNT boss Bruce Arena.
With each man came varying philosophy. Gonzalez says that wasn’t a problem, as players are used to different strategies when they play for club teams around the world. But the team still needs a direction.
“I don’t think that hurts us in a way, but it does hurt when there isn’t any direction,” Gonzalez said.
“There just needs to be direction … A clear way to express what the coach wants and make it clear what the players need to do and if you have that, then things will probably go the right way. “
The USMNT hired its first general manager in early June, signing Earnie Stewart. He will begin in that capacity on Aug. 1. Stewart was previously the sporting director for the Philadelphia Union. He played for the USMNT from 1990 to 2004, appearing in three World Cups. He has additional experience working in the front office for teams in the Netherlands.
“He is a good guy to steer our program in the right direction, make the right hires, allow a great pool of players available to the next coach and hopefully we can be on the right path to not having that experience ever again where we don’t qualify for the World Cup,” Gonzalez said.
The veteran defender wants the next coach to “know the American player.” He also hopes he plays well for his club team and gets another chance to represent his country.
“I still want to be a part of the group and will be waiting for that phone call,” Gonzalez said.