RECIFE, Brazil (AP) — After the final whistle, Omar Gonzalez spread his long arms in celebration and reserve goalkeeper Nick Rimando came leaping into them.
Gonzalez was ready to play a big role in this World Cup, just as he had promised from Day 1 of training camp even when a knee injury left him slightly behind.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann took a chance on the Los Angeles Galaxy star for Thursday’s Group G finale against three-time champion Germany, inserting Gonzalez for struggling right center back Geoff Cameron in the 1-0 loss that was still enough for the U.S. to advance in Brazil. Portugal defeated Ghana 2-1 at the same time.
“I did my job,” Gonzalez said. “I haven’t been getting much luck since the very beginning of camp with my little injury, but I’ve always said I was going to stay ready. I got my opportunity today, and I’m just happy I could step on the field and do whatever I could to help this team go through.”
Aside from an early missed clearance attempt by Gonzalez in the third minute when he flubbed Jerome Boateng’s cross and nearly put it in his own net, the move paid off for Klinsmann.
“No one has a perfect game,” Gonzalez said. “That was a little scare. It’s what you do after a little hiccup.”
The Americans have defied expectations by getting out of one of this tournament’s toughest groups. The U.S. is headed to the knockout round in consecutive World Cups for the first time.
A top defender in Major League Soccer, Gonzalez hung tough against high-scoring Germany on a soggy field and with a slippery ball.
“Everyone is so important in our group and we wanted to give Cam a break, and we don’t kind of have the luxury to say that all the players can come and go every four days in games and be always on the highest level,” Klinsmann said. “We were sure now with Omar coming in he was ready. He worked so hard the five, six weeks we had camp. And he was ready for it, and he showed that on the field.”
Gonzalez hurt his left knee May 3 against Colorado, keeping him out for the start of Klinsmann’s structured training camp last month at Stanford, California.
He hoped it wouldn’t put him behind. Clearly, Klinsmann trusted Gonzalez to take over a big responsibility on a new-look back line that has been scrutinized from the start for its youth and inexperience on soccer’s biggest stage.
“Jurgen has always said this is a group of 23 players,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said.
Against second-ranked Germany, Gonzalez didn’t flinch. His 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame certainly helped him to win possession on headers.
He received a quick congratulatory pat on the backside from goalkeeper Tim Howard when he cleared a ball in the 14th minute, then a high-five from fellow center back Matt Besler after another hard tackle against Thomas Mueller.
Gonzalez, who joined the national team player pool in 2009, cleared another potential chance for Germany after the ball deflected off Howard in front of the box.
“Not easy, you know, and thrown into the firing line,” Howard said. “I thought he did well, some good clearances, read the game well.”
The 25-year-old defender from Dallas made his World Cup debut in the 91st minute of Sunday night’s 2-2 draw with Portugal in Manaus, then made an even bigger impact in his first start with his team’s World Cup hopes on the line and chants of “U-S-A!” ringing through Arena Pernambuco.
While the Americans didn’t exactly get their ideal result, the defense didn’t allow the Germans a game like their 4-0 romp over Portugal in the opener.
When the final whistle blew and the Americans quickly learned of Portugal’s win, they took a lap to thank the fans who did make it through the flooded streets of Recife even when many of their own families did not.
Gonzalez joined his teammates, then stopped and gave a two thumbs-up salute, a wave and a clap before making his exit.