SAO PAULO, Brazil -- It's hard to escape the World Cup in Brazil.
The tournament logo hangs from lamp posts. It's painted on walls and affixed to the sides of buses and the windshields of cars. Flags unfurl from balconies, games run in endless loops on television and half the people, it seems, are wearing soccer jerseys of one country or another.
Still, Omar Gonzalez isn't convinced he's part of the tournament.
"Yeah, it's pretty funny," the U.S. defender said through a dimpled smile. "I keep telling myself I am here playing at this World Cup in Brazil and it is an unbelievable experience. But I don't think it is really going to set in until a few weeks after I am back home and have time to really sit down and think about this amazing experience."
He'll certainly have a lot to think about. Like the starting job in central defense he held for more than a year before losing it to Geoff Cameron just two weeks before the U.S. team left for Brazil. Or the four minutes of stoppage time he played against Portugal, his World Cup debut starting just in time for him to get a close-up look at Portugal's tying goal in the closing seconds.
Then came his first World Cup start, when he replaced Cameron against powerful Germany and played a major role in holding the world's second-ranked team to one goal.
"He got thrown into the firing line. But he did well, had some good clearances, read the game well," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Yet it almost never happened. None of it. Not the flags, not the Portugal game, not the start against Germany.
Less than two weeks before the start of the World Cup training camp, Gonzalez, playing for the Galaxy, tweaked his left knee, the same knee he had surgery on two years earlier to repair a torn ligament. Although Gonzalez has long denied it, he says now the injury probably cost him his starting job.
But it didn't affect his resolve.
"Omar has worked very hard to come back," U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said. "He was a little bit behind when he came in but it's great to see him have a good game."
Well, it was for those who got to see it. Gonzalez's parents, Adrian and Maria, and his new wife Erica followed him from Dallas to Brazil, then trailed the U.S. team through group play in Natal, Manus and Recife. The night before the final group-stage game -- against Germany, with a spot in the knockout round at stake -- Gonzalez found out he would be starting in a World Cup game.
It was a goal he and his family had always talked about but never really thought would take place. And it proved to be one they wouldn't see happen in person.
By the following morning torrential rains had flooded the streets outside his family's hotel, stranding them in their room. Unable to make it to the stadium, they watched the game on a cellphone.
"It was a pretty cool experience for them," Gonzalez said. "They were all watching and biting their nails in front of this little phone."
It was cooler for Gonzalez, a three-time Major League Soccer All-Star and a former MLS defender of the year who admitted he battled nerves right up until kickoff.
"Playing against Germany, playing a game to see if you're going to advance or not, this is the type of game that I've always dreamed of being in," he said. "There's not much thinking into that. Once the whistle blows, it's business time and all the other emotions go out the window."
Now the tension goes up one more notch. The knockout stage of a World Cup is single elimination so the U.S. faces only two options in Tuesday's game with Belgium: Win or go home.
Gonzalez, 25, has faced that scenario before, with the Galaxy in the MLS playoffs. And that, he says, has helped prepare him for what he expects to experience against Belgium.
"Everything goes up another level," he said. "Guys are a lot more focused, games end up being 1-1, 1-0. Small plays end up being huge plays.
"Everyone has to be tuned in for the entire game and cannot take any breaks. Because at any moment, things can change."
Like his perception of the World Cup. Although Gonzalez is still pinching himself to prove he's really here, backline teammate DaMarcus Beasley, the only American to play in four World Cups, said Gonzalez should get used to it because there's a good chance he'll be back in four years.
"He's a guy who has a lot of potential," Beasley said. "He's young and he's hungry and he always wants to do more. He wants to better himself every day. As an older guy looking down at a younger guy, it's always great to see that the U.S. program is in good hands with guys like that."
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