Michael Orozco ready to step in and do a job for the United States

Hang around Jurgen Klinsmann long enough, and you'll hear the United States coach use some variation of the word "grind."

It might be in the context of a team gutting its way through a season or an international tournament. Or he might be referring to the way a player fights his way through adversity, riding the ups and downs.

Based on that last definition, Michael Orozco is the ultimate grinder.

The U.S. international defender has rarely been a mainstay on any of the professional teams for which he has played. But the 30-year-old has managed to carve out a 13-year professional career (and counting). Orozco left his Southern California home at age 17, playing in the reserves and youth system of Mexican side Necaxa for 18 months before settling with San Luis. Aside from a one-season pit stop with the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer, he has played in Mexico's top tier ever since.

There have been Everest-sized ups and Mariana Trench-like downs. Orozco was sent off a mere two minutes into his first team debut with San Luis back in 2006. In 2008, he was also ejected just minutes into the U.S. Olympic team's group finale against Nigeria, which the Americans lost 2-1, eliminating them from the tournament. But Orozco etched himself into American lore on Aug. 12, 2012, scrambling home the only goal in a 1-0 win over Mexico, to date the only time the U.S. has prevailed in the storied Estadio Azteca.

"I'm always fighting for bigger things," he said via phone. "I just work hard. If you tell me to run the whole field, I'll run it. If you tell me to man-mark someone, I'll do it.

"Anything that a coach tells me to do, I'm going to do it. I'll be very professional about that.

"But social media, I stay away from all that. That's probably why people don't hear about me as much. It doesn't matter to me, as long as they see me in the picture always fighting and always doing good."

Klinsmann has noticed, and has long appreciated Orozco's ability and attitude, regardless of the task that the defender has been given.

"Michael has always been there for the team," Klinsmann said during Wednesday's news conference. "He never complained when he was maybe left out for a qualifier or for a specific game. Every time he came in he did his job. He's a very, very special individual."

Orozco's professionalism was on full display during the just-concluded Torneo Clausura with Liga MX side Club Tijuana. An early injury saw him sink down the depth chart, and despite playing in Copa MX games after his recovery, he didn't make a league appearance until late in the season.

"There was a little bit of conflict, about why I chose the U.S. over Mexico, and that one historical goal [at the Azteca]," he said.

"I told them, 'Let's put it to the side, we're all professionals here.' It wasn't like that was thrown at me, but there was little hints that that was one of the reasons.

"But I didn't pay any mind to it. I just kept working, I kept doing double sessions, so I could be fit, so I could be ready for whenever it was time for me to play with Tijuana, and to be ready for this Copa. This was something that was on my mind and was my goal."


Orozco added that the whispers regarding his international allegiance didn't come from Xolos manager Miguel Herrera, but it did take a while for the defender to convince him of his value. Ultimately, Herrera was won over.

Said Orozco: "At the end of the day, the coach spoke to me, he said, 'Michael, I can't believe how solid of a player you are, mentally, on and off the field. You proved me wrong, are you're ready to go. You're going to play.' I was like, 'I'm ready.' "

Orozco went on to play the last three league games of the season, one as a right back in a four-man back line, and two as a marking back in a three-defender alignment.

That versatility explains in large part why Orozco has lasted so long, but it has proven to be both a strength and a weakness. The native of Orange, California, is a classic tweener. At 5-foot-11, he isn't quite big enough to be a prototypical center back, and he doesn't have the attacking skills that most coaches like to see out of their outside backs.

Yet his technical ability and defending are such that he remains a valuable asset in a given squad.

"I think one of the reasons coaches have used Orozco in different spots is he's a confident person," said current U.S. under-17 manager John Hackworth, who was on the staff of the Union when Orozco played in Philadelphia.

"He believes in himself, and if he's asked to do anything, there's never a hesitation on Michael's part. And that's a really good quality, a belief in yourself, especially at that level. Sometimes that's the difference-maker between a player getting an opportunity or not.

"It's nice to know that when you call upon a player to play a role, that they're always willing to do that, and more importantly, be confident enough to undertake that opportunity with full conviction."

Orozco will need that confidence and more come Thursday, when the U.S. takes on Ecuador in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario. Regular right back DeAndre Yedlin is suspended, and Orozco is the leading candidate to fill in.

He defended quite capably in the final group match against Paraguay, playing the final 42 minutes following Yedlin's ejection, but Thursday's match will see him take on a much tougher opponent in Ecuador winger Jefferson Montero. It's a foe with whom Orozco has some familiarity. Montero once prowled the wing for Liga MX side Morelia when Orozco was on loan at Puebla.

"Montero is [shifty], he cuts a lot left or right, very good speed," he said. "But you've got to be at high intensity, you can't give him that time, whether it's me or any other teammate.

"Defending him, we've got to be very intense on that end, and support one another. There's always got to be a guy supporting to help. I think at this stage, we have to give it our all and not just defend Montero. They've got a whole squad of very good players that we've got to be aware of."

There's no question that Yedlin's ability to contribute to the attack will be missed. Orozco doesn't attempt to assuage those concerns. This is a man who knows his limitations, and his role.

"I'm a defender, so don't expect me to be attacking and score five goals," he said. "That's why we have Clint [Dempsey], we have Bobby [Wood], we have all these other players that do that job. I defend, wherever it is, left back, right back, center back, anywhere in the back I give the max, especially for my country. This is something that's very valuable to me."

So will a win on Thursday.