Miguel Gonzalez does not play like the shortest player on the pitch.
Yes, that is often one of the more nauseating cliches in sports. He plays with a big heart, he outwits the taller opposition, etc.
But no hyperbole is needed when the 5-foot-8 Oklahoma City Energy forward is fighting (and often wins) an aerial challenge.
“Because of his timing, he is powerful in the air,” Energy coach Jimmy Nielsen said. “I’ve seen him beat 6-foot-6 guys.”
It’s something Gonzalez made easy when he headed Kyle Hyland’s 30-yard cross in the 39th minute during Saturday’s match vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks. It was the first of four goals for the Energy, which held on to win 4-3 despite allowing two second-half Colorado Springs penalty goals.
Gonzalez, who signed from Colorado Springs this past winter, leads the club with three assists and tied for the scoring lead with four goals. He added a second goal in the 51st minute with a left-footed shot from outside the box, which gave the Energy a 3-1 lead.
“The message was clear, we wanted to fight. We wanted to win,” Gonzalez said.
Colorado Springs struggled to contain its former striker for the entire match, for Gonzalez also assisted the Energy’s second goal in the first minute of first-half stoppage time. Gonzalez played the ball to forward Jose Angulo, who caught Colorado Springs goalkeeper Moise Pouaty cheating off his line and shot a screamer past Pouaty on the near-side left post.
His aerial triumphs might be Gonzalez’s distinctive visible skill, but it is only part of his repertoire that makes him the Energy’s most versatile attacker. He has the speed to stretch the opposing backline and beat a defender one-on-one. He is confident with his feet even in air, as seen in his bicycle-kick goal vs. Sacramento on April 11.
“When we played him last year, we had our trouble closing him down,” Nielsen said. “Now we see our opponents are having trouble closing him down. He has a way to find the soft pockets.”
Gonzalez remains productive despite his ever-evolving role. He began the season as the central striker, but played more on the left wing in June after the club acquired Andy Craven from FC Cincinnati.
After Craven injured himself in warmups ahead of the Tulsa match July 8, Gonzalez was forced back to central striker for the San Antonio match the following week. He salvaged a draw for the Energy in second-half stoppage time after one-timing a deflected clearance off the crossbar into the equalizing goal.
With Angulo starting Saturday, Gonzalez moved behind him into a second striker position. The Energy acquired Angulo, who scored again in the 60th minute, on loan from Saint Louis earlier in July to add an attacking threat in Craven’s absence.
Gonzalez and Angulo became the first Energy players to each score twice in a match, and Saturday’s four goals were the most the club has scored at home.
“I’m easy going, and I feel like I’m able to play and feel comfortable in those positions,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve told the coaches whatever the team needs, I’ll be there.”
One role Gonzalez did not enjoy was his recent exile to the bench. He was suspended three matches after throwing an elbow into Seattle Sounders 2 midfielder Ray Saari’s face on June 19. Including the Seattle match, the Energy earned only one point from the four matches that Gonzalez missed.
But the Energy have earned four points from its past two matches since Gonzalez’s return from suspension, both against clubs in playoff position.
“Once I had the three-game suspension, I wanted the hunger to get back on the field and play,” Gonzalez said. “Now that I’m back, I feel good. I feel confident. I have to keep that going.”
With the win, the Energy moved into 10th in the Western Conference with 22 points, only one point behind the final playoff spot. Eight clubs are within four points of each other for the final four playoff spots.
With Gonzalez in-form, the Energy finally has confidence it will earn the points needed to qualify for the postseason.
“Offensively Miguel is a threat, but where he deserves credit is where he works extremely hard defensively, too,” Nielsen said.” For us to succeed, he will be an important player.”