The LA Galaxy is expecting a Rose Bowl crowd rivaling that which attended last year's friendly against FC Barcelona, which attracted more than 93,000 fans, for Saturday's match against Real Madrid.
The atmosphere figures to be electric, much like it was a year ago when the Galaxy put on an entertaining effort in a 2-1 loss to the then-European Champions, Barcelona, but it shouldn't be a problem for Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza. The second-year Galaxy defenders vividly remember what it was like a year ago, facing not only Barcelona but Italian powerhouse AC Milan in another friendly, and how the excitement was just short of overwhelming for both of the matches. But now it is a year later, they have more than a season of MLS competition on their resumes and they are approaching Saturday's much-anticipated game like grizzled veterans.
"I remember last year … my eyes were as big as can be," Gonzalez, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, said with a grin. "This year I'm a little bit more calm and just looking to go out there and have as much fun as possible, just like last year.
"There's going to be some amazing players on the field (Saturday) … five of them won a World Cup. These games are always fun and you just have to go out there and play good soccer. Just try and put on a show."
The two friendlies were particularly daunting for DeLaGarza, who went head-to-head with AC Milan's Ronaldinho in the first game and then-Barcelona forward Thierry Henry in Pasadena, but he more than held his own against two of the world's most highly regarded players.
"I get nervous before every game, but obviously seeing him across the field is pretty intimidating," DeLaGarza said about Ronaldinho. "He's a strong guy, too … I tried to jump on his back one time when he wasn't moving. He's a great player, the same as Henry. They bring two different dynamics to the game; Henry was strong and fast while Ronaldinho obviously was the more creative, the playmaker and the passer.
"We'll see what happens tomorrow."
Gonzalez said he feels much better-prepared than a year ago.
"I have a year and a half under my belt and a national team camp," said Gonzalez, who has been called up by U.S. men's national team coach Bob Bradley for next week’s friendly against Brazil. Gonzalez, Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle will leave after the game on Sunday morning and fly to New York to prepare for the Brazil match, which will be held Tuesday at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Gonzalez replaced the Columbus Crew's Chad Marshall, who was withdrawn from the 18-man roster. "I've seen somewhat of a different level, so I think I'm a little more prepared.”
"It's tough going from league games where every play matters to these games where they're fun and you have big crowds. I'm just happy to be part of it and I'm up for every game. It doesn't make a difference what game it is; I'm just going to be prepared."
The same goes for DeLaGarza.
"I think we know what to expect," he said. "I remember last year at the Rose Bowl, it was nerve wracking at first, but once I got that first touch I settled down. We know what to expect from last year and seeing how those teams took the games. They took them seriously last year, and hopefully Real Madrid does, too.
"I think it was a great experience for the both of us and what we can take from those games. It's something we'll never forget."