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Galaxian Gonzalez ready to lead ad-hoc U.S. defense

By Simon Evans

DENVER, Colorado (Reuters) - A leadership role rarely falls to a 24-year-old playing in just his second World Cup qualifier but U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez will have little choice but to be an organiser on Friday against Costa Rica.

Gonzalez, who plays Major League Soccer with L.A. Galaxy, lacks an experienced partner to guide him after former captain Carlos Bocanegra was left out.

Injuries have robbed Klinsmann of his main options at full-back - Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson.

Their replacements, Tony Beltran and Justin Marrow, have only a solitary, low-key friendly against Canada in January to their credit.

But Gonzalez said he would be ready to be a vocal presence in what will be a very makeshift back four.

"These kind of challenges are great to help progress you in your career," he told Reuters before training on Thursday.

"I want to take this opportunity to be a leader, talk to everyone around me, make sure that I have people in the right positions."

Klinsmann will not announce his team until shortly before kick-off on Friday but Gonzalez said the chosen back four had been working as a unit in training.

"Whoever the guys playing next to me will be, I think we are going to have a good back line," he said.

The six defenders named by Klinsmann have just 12 appearances in World Cup qualifiers between them - with half of them coming from Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron, who could well be Gonzalez's partner in the heart of the defence.

The pair featured in the 2-1 loss to Honduras in February and, in a lacklustre performance throughout the team, both were at fault for the winning goal.

Gonzalez was initially critical of his display in that game, but after being surprisingly included at the expense of Bocanegra, had put it into perspective.

"It was a big game to step into it, circumstances were really difficult and I think I held my own except for that one little mishap at the end. That game is long gone, though," he said.

"It is a lot better having played that last game, I don't think the games get any easier but it is good having that one under my belt. I come in feeling a lot more confident and hopefully it shows."

Strong in the air, Gonzalez is a threat at set-pieces which have been a weak spot for the Costa Ricans but his main task will be to keep close tabs on forward Alvaro Saborio.

Saborio is well-known to Gonzalez as an opponent in Major League Soccer and the center-half expected a tough test.

"He is a big guy, he is able to turn on you pretty quick, get into the channels and able to hold the ball and play guys in," he said.

"I think one of his best attributes is his finishing in the box, getting up for headers and putting them in, so that is a big issue and we are very aware of it."

Tuesday's game at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City will be a special occasion for Gonzalez, a joint Mexican-U.S. citizen with parents from south of the border, but for the moment his focus is purely on the clash in Colorado.

Despite the injuries, which also include first-choice keeper Tim Howard, Gonzalez said the atmosphere in the team this week had struck the right tone.

"The chemistry feels great, everyone is ready to fight for each other and everyone is in high spirits," he added.

(Editing by Ian Ransom)

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