Jan. 7, 2012: Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez was in an airport bathroom in Belek, Turkey, injecting himself with a blood thinner. He'd arrived in Belek two days before to train with German club FC Nuremberg, which was interested in signing him. But in his first training session, he tore his ACL. Now he was going back to Los Angeles.
"It teaches you a lesson," Gonzalez says of his injury. "Things can change so fast."
A month before, the 23-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch central defender, a Dallas native in his third season with the Galaxy, had emerged as one of America's top players. His size made him an imposing figure on defense and a threat on offense. He helped the Galaxy win the 2011 MLS Cup and was named MLS Defender of the Year. U.S. National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann invited him to the team's annual January training camp.
Gonzalez opted out of the camp for the chance to play with Nuremberg, in one of the world's top soccer leagues. The injury lost him that opportunity and was expected to keep him out of the Galaxy lineup until August, with only two months left in the season.
When he got back to his Manhattan Beach home, physical therapy consisted of two training sessions a day, five days a week. The intense rehab worked. Gonzalez started practicing in May, and he made his first start on July 4. But returning to the lineup wasn't easy.
"I started having the fear my first game, and for a couple months, just thinking that I wasn't gonna be the same player," he says. "Through time it just faded away."
With Gonzalez back in the lineup, the Galaxy overcame an early-season slump to repeat as MLS Cup champions. In the MLS Cup itself, he proved his offensive ability, scoring the game-tying goal on a header, and was named the game's MVP.
In the locker room after the game, Gonzalez showed a ... different side. "Everyone lined up for the picture," he says. "I had to go do the press conference, so I was about to shower, and they were, like, 'Picture! Picture!' I had my robe on, and so I ran in, and I just flashed the guys."
A few weeks later, he got a text message from Klinsmann. "Good job on the season," Gonzalez recalls the text saying. "You're going to come into camp." The United States had given up six goals in its last five games of 2012. It needed a central defender.
Gonzalez's play in the January camp earned him a starting spot for the American team in its first final-round, World Cup–qualifying match against Honduras in that country's San Pedro Sula on Feb. 6. "It was a bit nerve-racking," he says. "It was in a crazy environment."
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Gonzalez played well most of the game, but in the second half, he let an attacker sneak behind him and score the game-winning goal. "It wasn't a perfect game for me, but you just learn from these experiences," he adds.
Gonzalez started in more World Cup qualifiers in March against Costa Rica and Mexico, becoming one of only four players to play every minute of the qualifiers. He expects to be part of the remaining qualifiers — and the World Cup next summer.
His injury has given him a new philosophy about all the upcoming opportunities, one that is the definition of L.A. cool. "You can never get too excited about something," he says. "Realize you have the opportunity, accept it and be cool about it."