As a fan, it’s easy to get excited about signing players that will help bolster your attack. For the most part, those are the names that we see imprinted on the back of thousands and thousands of jerseys.
That’s why heading into the 2019 season, in addition to Altidore’s return, all of the attention was on who would Toronto FC get to replace Sebastian Giovinco. That need was addressed, with the signings of Alejandro Pozuelo and, eventually, Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo.
However, through all of the flashy signings up front, one of the question marks that continued to follow this team around was their backline. How were the Reds going to fix a defense that went from one of the most stable fortresses in the league to one of their biggest flaws?
A chief signing was imperative, and on Jun. 3, 2019, Omar Gonzalez entered the picture.
While welcoming Gonzalez during his introduction presser, TFC General Manager Ali Curtis described the United States international as a player that will immediately help the club.
“Adding Omar [Gonzalez] will improve our team,” said Curtis at the time. “He is a great competitor that will approach every training session and match with a high level of intensity. He’ll also be able to add a greater presence in the air for us, both offensively and defensively.
“While he has won numerous trophies during his career on the club and international level, he is hungry to be part of championship team in Toronto.”
The three-time MLS Cup champion has shown that hunger since his debut against the Montreal Impact on July 3, as he helped the Reds earn at least a point in 12 of the 14 matches he has appeared in during the MLS regular season. In fact, Toronto FC have gone 7-2-6 in the matches that Gonzalez features in.
For a single player, especially a defender, to turn a club’s fortunes around seems a bit far-fetched, but Gonzalez has certainly made the case. His physical structure has been helpful in the way Greg Vanney’s clan wants to impose their style of play while his winning mentality has been a welcome addition inside a locker room craving inspiration. It goes without saying that his presence will be of a massive importance in the playoffs.
A Natural Leader
Whether through observation, talking to teammates, or chatting with coaches, it’s clear that Gonzalez possesses a natural charisma and cheerful character that has helped him seamlessly integrate within the TFC locker room, something that TFC management said they were excited about when bringing in the former MLS Defender of the Year.
“We were looking for a very specific profile of player,” said Curtis at the time. “Omar’s a good guy. He will fit in well with the group, and he will be a welcome addition to the locker room and daily environment.”
The US international might have taken some time to adjust on the field, but off the field, you know you’re getting a committed leader. Gonzalez has also improved each game, putting in stronger performances as the season wore on, even facilitating his recent involvement him in two MLS Team of the Weeks.
The U.S. International has also provided stability at the heart of the defensive line next to Chris Mavinga, allowing the French defender to refind his 2017 form.
“[Omar Gonzalez] is easy to play with because he’s a good player with good experience,” said Mavinga after the team’s recent clean-sheet win over the Columbus Crew on Decision Day. “It’s always easy to play with Omar [Gonzalez] because he’s a good guy [...] and for me, it’s easy to be comfortable.”
While the Laurent Ciman experiment hasn’t worked out perfectly for TFC, Gonzalez’s arrival has reinstilled confidence in a shaky Toronto backline.
Gonzalez’s structure allows him to win aerial balls — addressing a major need for the Reds — in particular at the offensive end of the field where he can capitalize on set-pieces.
With Vanney being a fan of build-up play from the back, Gonzalez is also key during live play as well. He has strong passing and rarely loses his focus which helps TFC to keep the flow of their game.
A major feature in Gonzalez’s play when TFC are defending is his elegant way of timing tackles: forcing the opponent to go a certain direction before blocking the pass, cross or shot — an important trait he carries to avoid careless fouls.
His stability combines perfectly with Mavinga’s because the French defender is not very polite when not in possession. Combine Mavinga’s press with Gonzalez’s intelligence, and you have a pretty solid duo.
“Since I left in 2015, I’ve kept in touch with the league, watching games,” Gonzalez explained in his first comments as a TFC player. “Throughout that time, Toronto has become a force, making it to two finals, back-to-back, winning, and then going to the finals of Concacaf.
“For the past few years, I’ve been keeping a close eye on Toronto and when the opportunity arose to come back and they were first in the allocation list, it just made sense because they’re such strong team, have a streak of making it in late into the playoffs, and have aspirations of winning a Concacaf title. That’s everything that I want to be a part of.”
These are words of a champion. Words of a player who has already won and knows what it takes to propel a side towards glory. He’s saying all of the right things, he’s conducting himself in an ideal way, and his recent play speaks for itself.
Since Gonzalez has joined the club, Toronto’s aspirations and outlook has drastically improved. That’s no coincidence as the club heads into the playoffs with its eye on the ultimate prize.
So amidst Toronto’s flashy offensive signings, is it a stretch to say that Gonzalez has been the most important?