A.J. DeLaGarza thriving in new right back role for LA Galaxy
CARSON, Calif. – A.J. DeLaGarza finally is where he's supposed to be, at least in the LA Galaxy staff's minds.
The veteran defender, who has been stationed next to his old college roommate Omar Gonzalez most of his four-plus seasons in MLS, moved to right back during LA's International Champions Cup friendlies a month ago and has been stationed there since.
It doesn't appear that's going to change.
“We always felt that that was probably his best position at this level,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said after Tuesday's training session at the StubHub Center. “I think he's getting more comfortable going forward, which is a big part of it.
"The defensive part of it usually is not ever an issue with A.J. He sniffs things out. He was born to defend. I think it's his ability now to recognize space and getting forward and being dangerous, and I think as he develops into that position, that becomes more confidence for him as well.”
DeLaGarza has been on right occasionally in his Galaxy career – he started the first nine games this year on the right, including three of the four early CONCACAF Champions League matches – but his chemistry with Gonzalez, whom he partnered in the middle for three seasons at the University of Maryland before both came to LA, has been so valuable to the club's defensive success.
As Leonardo, who stands 6-foot-2, has progressed after a few injury-riddled years, the Galaxy have preferred to pair him with the 6-5 Gonzalez, and the 5-9 DeLaGarza's move to the right has enabled Sean Franklin to give the Galaxy another option at right midfield.
“I think it's import to have center backs with the profile of center backs,” head coach Bruce Arena said after the Galaxy's win over Vancouver 10 days ago. “Leonardo gives us that.”
DeLaGarza is still learning the finer points of being right back, a position he'd not played before coming to LA.
“I still have some tendencies of being a central defender,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “Where if the ball's in the box for us and it pops out, I'm usually caught in the back, just watching, because as a center back you don't follow up those plays, but as a right back, you have to get up there and get any loose balls, and I've noticed [I do] that. It's just those little tendencies it takes time to get.”
Sarachan said DeLaGarza “plays it conservative,” but the Galaxy coaches are prodding him to be more effective attacking up the flank.
“We've given him the green light, so now he's got to,” Sarachan said. “It's like driving a faster car than he's used to. He's got to give it some gas and go and not be afraid of it.”
DeLaGarza always enjoyed playing in the middle – he's a thinker on the field, reads the game exceedingly well – and he could get another game there this weekend against Colorado, with Gonzalez away on World Cup qualifying duty – but he understands Arena's preference for size at the position.
“Just look at [Saturday's win over San Jose]: You have [Alan] Gordon and [Steven] Lenhart up front, and it's a tough matchup physically for me, I think. Mentally, I feel I can compete with those guys, but it's what [Arena's] most comfortable with, and that's having bigger guys go up against their bigger guys.
“It could go both ways. We all bring different qualities to our positions. Wherever I'm needed, I'm going to be there.”