TFC signs U.S. international defender Omar Gonzalez

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In this July 18, 2017 photo, United States' Omar Gonzalez moves across the field to speak with members of the media at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Looking to bolster its back line, Toronto FC has made a major defensive addition with the signing of U.S. international defender Omar Gonzalez.

TFC officially announced the move on Monday afternoon. The deal is for two-and-a-half years, plus an option year. Also, Toronto signed Gonzalez using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM).

Financial details of the transfer from Mexican club Pachuca are not known, but Gonzalez will be added to the roster on July 9 once the MLS summer transfer window opens. He is currently training with the U.S. national team in preparation for this month’s Concacaf Gold Cup.

Gonzalez, a 30-year-old native of Dallas, is a former MLS defender of the year (2011), rookie of the year (2009) and a four-time league all-star (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014) during his time with the LA Galaxy. He was sold to Pachuca in 2015, and was recently on loan at Atlas, another top team in Mexico’s first division.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday night, Gonzalez said he kept close tabs on MLS, and in particular TFC’s exploits, during his time in Mexico, and admitted to cheering for the Reds when they lost to Mexican side Chivas Guadalajara in last year’s Concacaf Champions League final.

“Since I left [MLS] I’ve kept [abreast] of the league, just watching games, and throughout that time Toronto has become a force in the league,” said Gonzalez, who played in 205 regular season and playoff games in seven seasons with L.A.

“For the past few years, I’ve been keeping a close eye on Toronto, and when the opportunity arose for me to come back to the league… it just made sense because they’re such a strong team, and they have aspirations of winning a Concacaf title, and that’s everything that I want to be part of, and that really excites me.”

Gonzalez confirmed that TFC came close to signing him last month, but the deal fell through just before the MLS primary transfer window closed. Toronto GM Ali Curtis was persistent, though, as he flew down to Mexico to have lunch with Gonzalez to keep the process going, before the transfer was recently finalized.

Michael Bradley also played a small role in luring Gonzalez to Toronto. The former MLS defender of the year was roommates with Bradley during a U.S. national team training camp earlier this year, long before Toronto approached Gonzalez, and the TFC captain used the occasion to sell him on the virtues of the club, the organization and the city.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney has long been an admirer of Gonzalez, praising the U.S. international for his “solid, professional decision-making as a centre back,” and he hopes his new stud defender can help improve a leaky TFC back line with his sound defensive work and physical presence.

“He’s a veteran defender, a centre back with size [he stands six-feet-five] with a lot of experience. He’s won championships everywhere he’s been. [He’s] a good addition to our group as we look short- and longer-term at the health and stability of our back line,” Vanney said after Monday’s practice.

Vanney lauded Gonzalez’s overall character, believing he will fit in well with the team and be a positive influence in the locker room.

“He works hard every day and is very professional. … He loves playing, which is a big part of it, and he takes care of himself. He looks at every detail in terms of how to take care of himself both on and off the field,” Vanney explained.

Selected third overall by L.A. in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Maryland, Gonzalez has a wealth of MLS experience, helping the Galaxy win a trio of MLS Cups, in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Gonzalez also has three goals in 49 appearances for the U.S. national team, winning a pair of Concacaf Gold Cups in 2013 and 2017, and he represented his country at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

The addition of Gonzalez should strengthen a porous TFC defence that has given up 23 goals, kept just three clean sheets, and conceded two or more goals on nine occasions in 14 matches this season. The Reds are averaging 1.64 goals against per game, which ranks 17th in MLS. Gonzalez will be counted on to set TFC back on course from a defensive perspective.

“To be honest, they’ve played well; it’s just been lapses. … I think I am a solid defender who reads the game very well, and has a ton of experience. I’m going to add some leadership back there,” Gonzalez said.

Veteran TFC defender Drew Moor is thankful for the addition of Gonzalez, calling his signing a “huge” move by a Toronto side that sports a 5-6-3 record and is winless in six games – four losses and a pair of draws – with its last victory coming on May 4. Over those six matches, Toronto has coughed up 10 goals.

“He’s a guy we’ll be able to rely on day in and day out, and I think that’s important for us right now,” Moor said.

Moor later added: “I’m not going to lie: We’ve given up more goals than we should have this season. He’s somebody who we’ll count on to try to help fix that, as much as we’re going out there every day in trying to fix the problem, as well.”

When Moor played with FC Dallas early on in his MLS career, Gonzalez would often train with the Texas club during the summer when he was home from university. Even before he turned pro, Gonzalez caught the attention of Moor.

“He fit right in even as a collegiate athlete [and] looked very good in training with FC Dallas as a defender. He didn’t look like a player who wasn’t a professional yet, so I was impressed right away with him,” said Moor, who like Gonzalez is a Dallas native.

Gonzalez has fond memories of his training days with FC Dallas.

“It was a great group of guys who really welcomed me. I was a young guy, and I probably slowed training down a little bit, but they helped me improve, and I learned a few things. I’m definitely thankful that Drew was one of the guys there,” Gonzalez recalled.

Beyond Gonzalez’s leadership and defensive organizational skills, Moor believes the U.S. international can also help TFC’s attack.

“He’s a better passer than might stand out to most people. He can hit a ball over distance,” Moor offered.

Vanney concurred, stating the addition of Gonzalez gives the Reds a dangerous attacking threat as someone who opposing teams “always have to prepare for” on set pieces.

“He gives us something that we haven’t had a lot of, which is aerial presence in the club over the years,” Vanney stated.

Gonzalez wasn’t free to sign with any team in the league. Instead, he first had to go through the allocation process, a league mechanism that applies to U.S. internationals who return to MLS.

In January, TFC traded defender Nick Hagglund to expansion club FC Cincinnati in a deal that saw the Reds acquire the top spot in the allocation order, in addition to US$100,000 TAM and US$200,000 in general allocation money

That trade paved the way for Toronto to sign Gonzalez.

It’s interesting to note that TFC could have selected Gonzalez in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Instead, they used the second overall pick on midfielder Sam Cronin, who was traded to San Jose the following summer. L.A. wasted little time and took Gonzalez at No. 3.

More than a decade later, Gonzales had landed in Toronto.

“Looking from afar these past few years, I can see that they want to win, that it’s a world-class organization that treats its players right … and it seems like the place to be,” Gonzalez enthused.

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