It was just like old times for the LA Galaxy in last Saturday's 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake. It was not just because the defense continued its stellar play of late -- just one goal allowed in four games -- but A.J. DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez were back together again.
The second-year defenders were in the middle of the back line, something that hadn't occurred since December of 2008, when they helped lead the University of Maryland to the College Cup championship with a win over the University of North Carolina at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
Gonzalez had been manning his customary position in the middle since he joined the Galaxy last season and DeLaGarza had been out wide. But with injuries to central defenders Gregg Berhalter and Leonardo prompting some roster reshuffling, the move to restore the former partnership made sense. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena even approached Gonzalez early last week and asked him who he was more comfortable with in the middle of the defense -- DeLaGarza or Sean Franklin -- and the decision was a no-brainer as far as Gonzalez was concerned.
"I told Bruce I've never played with Sean, so put A.J. back there with me," he said. "It turned out for the best. A.J. played a great game and I think as a whole we did very well."
The Galaxy defense had played 311 minutes to open the season without allowing a goal before Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman scored just before halftime. That marked the first regular season goal allowed by Los Angeles since a 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew on Oct. 26 of last season.
Much of that success can be attributed to the play of Gonzalez, who went on to become MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009 and started in all 30 of the club’s regular season games. DeLaGarza was solid as well in playing 22 games, including 21 starts. Both players admitted there is a certain chemistry between them, having honed their partnership in college. They know each other's tendencies and watch out for each other.
"Whether him being to the right of me or the left of me, either way I love having him back there," Gonzalez said.
"I've played with him for four years," DeLaGarza said, "so I know him a little better than anybody else here. There really is a comfort level."
From an appearance standpoint, the combination is an unusual one.
Gonzalez stands 6-5 and weighs 210 pounds. DeLaGarza is not quite 5-9 and weighs no more than 145 pounds. Gonzalez is a force who is difficult to move off the line, but don't discount DeLaGarza's physicality for his lack of size.
"He weighs what, a buck 45?" Gonzalez asked with a grin. "But A.J. is a tough, little guy. He's quick and I'm big. I'm not slow, but A.J.
makes up for me sometimes and I make up for him sometimes. I think we just have a great combination together."
DeLaGarza said the differences between playing defense in the middle of the field as opposed to out wide are striking, particularly from a physical standpoint.
"You're dealing with guys in the middle who are a lot bigger than you, a lot stronger," he said. "You also have to read the plays a lot faster in the middle. It's a lot more demanding.
"It's a lot different here compared to college. You have to be more aware of the ball coming over the top. Beckerman sometimes was kicking it by me over our heads. I tended to drop off a little too much instead of holding my line, but it was good overall.
"I thought we did fine. There was nothing too dangerous, except for one play. I thought we did well as a unit, not just me and Omar."