CARSON, Calif. – To say the LA Galaxy faced a difficult challenge last Saturday in New York against the Red Bulls would be one of the understatements of the season.
Not only were they competing without their head coach, Bruce Arena, who was hospitalized for two days with viral complications, but they also were having to carry on despite the absence of Todd Dunivant, who had started every game at left back but couldn’t go because of neck spasms. In his absence, second-year defender A.J. DeLaGarza, stepped in and blended in seamlessly to help the Galaxy to an impressive 1-0 victory.
“When there is an opportunity to get him on the field, we want to get him on the field,” Arena said of DeLaGarza, who started 21 games on the right and left sides of the Galaxy defense as a rookie in 2009 and has also been used in central defense this season. “He does give us a lot of versatility in the back.
“He’s been great.”
A 22-year-old from Bryans Road, Md. who was the Galaxy’s Second Round pick (17th overall) of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Maryland, DeLaGarza got word he would start on Friday and prepared himself the best he could despite the late notice. He knew he likely would face New York’s Dane Richards or Macoumba Kandji on the wing. DeLaGarza said Richards is the faster of the two while Kandji is more creative.
“I was surprised it happened so late,” DeLaGarza said about getting the start. “I don’t know whether this is something that had been bothering Todd for a while. It was something that wasn’t expected but I was real excited for it.
“At first I wasn’t that comfortable using my left foot, but after I got a few touches and settled in the game I was all right. I felt good.”
Saturday’s start at left back marked his first start there since last season’s Western Conference Championship against the Houston Dynamo, which DeLaGarza played the full 120 minutes of as the Galaxy won 2-0 in extra time. One week later at MLS Cup against Real Salt Lake, he came on for an injured Omar Gonzalez in the 90th minute and played all 30 minutes of extra time at right back.
Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan, who managed the team in Arena’s absence last Saturday, said he had no qualms about putting DeLaGarza on the left side of defense. A natural center back despite his small stature, DeLaGarza’s versatility has drawn praise throughout his brief MLS career.
“The first thing about A.J. is he’s a defender and knows what his job is,” Sarachan said. “Whether you play him in the middle, right or left he understands the defending concepts. As far as the pure defending goes, the alertness and the awareness, we didn’t hesitate to use him there.”
DeLaGarza said he was ready for the challenge, and it didn’t matter where he played.
“Just wherever I can help the team out,” he said.
Sarachan said he has been impressed with DeLaGarza for some time.
“I use the term ‘he gets it,’ ” Sarachan said. “He understands what it means to be a professional every day. He comes to work every day; even though he’s a young player his background put him in the position to where he didn’t miss a beat at this level.
“When you come and work every day and hone your craft, only good things will happen. For a kid like that, it’s sort of proven out.”