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Column: Omar Gonzalez enjoying life — and success — after leaving Galaxy

Omar Gonzalez, Johan Venegas
Omar Gonzalez, while playing for the U.S. national team, clears a pass to Costa Rica’s Johan Venegas during a World Cup qualifying game last May.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

Omar Gonzalez never wanted to leave his team. Or his home.

The Galaxy drafted him out of college, turned him into an MLS rookie of the year and helped him become the league’s top defender, a four-time Best XI selection and a World Cup starter.

Southern California is where he bought his first house, got married and started a family.

Both the club and the city were as comfortable as an old shoe.

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But there’s a fine line between comfort and complacency, a line Gonzalez admits he crossed during the 2015 season, his last with the Galaxy. So when the team offered him a new contract he said was worth half the old one, Gonzalez chose to leave home and face the unfamiliar, signing with Pachuca of Mexico’s Liga MX.

A year later he credits that decision with turning his career around.

“Looking back it was the right thing to do,” said Gonzalez, who began his second year in Mexico on Saturday when Pachuca kicked off the Liga MX Clausura season against Leon.

 “Change is good,” he said. “And for me it was perfect timing to get out.”

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Out of MLS. Out of his Galaxy uniform. Out of a situation that had become so routine that Gonzalez said he stopped challenging himself.

“I could take practices off and still start,” he said. “And a lot of that’s on me. Me just getting comfortable. The case at Pachuca is, if I don’t perform, I’m going to be off the field. So every single training session I put everything into it.”

Last year that renewed dedication paid off as Gonzalez helped guide Pachuca to the title in Mexico’s January-to-May Clausura, the team’s first crown since 2007. The club then made it to the quarterfinals of the Apertura, which runs from July to December. And with Gonzalez in central defense, Pachuca conceded only 37 goals in 34 regular-season games in the two tournaments. Only two teams allowed fewer.

The Apertura ended in a wild Christmas Day title game that featured a brawl resulting in the expulsion of four players, forcing the teams to finish extra time with nine men each, and a last-minute game-tying goal. The match eventually went to penalty kicks, with Tigres outlasting Club America, 3-0.

Univision’s broadcast drew 3.3 million viewers — the largest U.S. audience for an Apertura final in a decade — nearly matching the viewership for December’s MLS Cup final, which ran on four channels and in three languages in the U.S. and Canada.

After a break of just 13 days, the Liga MX returned Friday with Veracruz beating Queretaro in the Clausura opener. The usual suspects — Tigres, Pachuca, America and Monterrey — are again expected to lead the way, but given the crazy schedule and the deep talent in the Liga MX, as many as a dozen teams have a realistic shot at a title.

That parity is a big reason why Gonzalez had to up his game when he moved to Mexico, an improvement that also earned him a call back to the U.S. national team for two World Cup quarterfinals last fall. Gonzalez and then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s had a strained relationship, with the coach frequently losing patience with the player’s often-unfocused performances.

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But Klinsmann was fired in November and his replacement, former Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, knows Gonzalez better, having chosen him with the third overall pick in the 2009 MLS Superdraft before transferring him to Pachuca seven years later.

Gonzalez wasn’t called in to the national team’s winter camp, which begins Tuesday, because the Liga MX season is underway. However, Arena said Gonzalez would be among the players considered for the next round of World Cup qualifiers in March.

“Omar’s certainly in our pool of players,” Arena said Friday. “No question about that.”

If there’s a reunion this spring, Gonzalez said his former coach might be pleasantly surprised by how he’s grown as both a player and a person since leaving L.A. Although Gonzalez, as a boy, had spent summers at his grandparents’ home in Monterrey, sometimes training with the first-division team his uncle Lalo Rodriguez Plata once played for, tiny Pachuca was a foreign place. Yet, rather than fearing the unknown, Gonzalez embraced it, appearing at his introductory press conference wearing a full Darth Vader costume to mark his move to the dark side.

“When I left the Galaxy, I told myself I’m not going to think about L.A. I’m going to move forward and embrace it as much as I can and learn as much as I can,” he said. “I fully immersed myself and threw myself into the water and didn’t look back.”

The move paid off in other ways, too. Although Gonzalez, 28, declined to discuss the specifics of his Pachuca contract, he said his salary was “pretty close” to the $1.45 million he was guaranteed in his final season with the Galaxy. And halfway into his first year in Mexico, he and wife Erica expanded their family with the birth of their second daughter.

So now Gonzalez, the guy who never thought he’d leave Southern California, isn’t sure when he’ll return. A call-up to the national team this spring would be nice, of course, but beyond that he’s keeping his options open, renting rather than selling his Manhattan Beach house.

“I’d like to get back to L.A. at some point,” he said. “There are no plans right now, but I would like to see myself back in L.A.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11


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