CARSON, Calif. – Experience has apparently given way to youth on the Galaxy’s back line.
With 37-year-old Gregg Berhalter healthy and available, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena elected to go with second-year man A.J. DeLaGarza in central defense for the playoff opener in Seattle.
And after shutting down the Sounders, Arena’s move paid off.
Whether or not DeLaGarza starts Sunday’s return leg at The Home Depot Center remains to be seen, but for now it appears the job is DeLaGarza’s, which is just fine by at least one teammate.
“A.J. is always focused and he’s already ready to play,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “Since I’ve been playing with – since I’ve been a freshman in college – he’s always been a great player. Everyone’s starting to see that he can handle the job at hand.”
DeLaGarza and Gonzalez have played several times in central defense this season. The last two games, both Galaxy victories, have featured the duo in central defense. But well before this season, a DeLaGarza-Gonzalez center back pairing was the norm.
At the University of Maryland, DeLaGarza-Gonzalez was the norm. The two players anchored the Terrapins’ defense and helped the school win the 2008 NCAA College Cup. DeLaGarza also helped Maryland to the 2005 title.
“We’ve played together the last five years or something like that. It’s been good,” DeLaGarza said. “We know each other pretty well so it makes it a lot easier on both of us.”
The two were roommates during their time at Maryland, so one’s tendencies are seemingly second nature to the other.
“I think it shows on the field,” he said. “We’re just really comfortable with each other, not much has to be said because I know where he is all the time.”
Still, that it’s taken nearly two years for Gonzalez and DeLaGarza to pair together could be surprising. It also might have to do with the height – Gonzalez has it, and DeLaGarza lacks it. At 6-foot-5, Gonzalez is the towering physical specimen seemingly sought after around the world. The 5-foot-9 DeLaGarza, meanwhile, has been labeled as “undersized” and “short,” terms that aren’t flattering for would-be central defenders.
Height, though, reveals little about DeLaGarza’s game and his character.
“He was winning headers over [Blaise] Nkufo and he was winning headers every game,” Gonzalez said. “It shouldn’t really matter about his height. A.J. has a great heart and he puts every ounce of effort into it each game, each play.”
What hurt DeLaGarza on Sunday, though, was not necessarily his height but rather inexperience. DeLaGarza admitted feeling shaky at the start of the game at Qwest Field.
“I thought I started a little shaky to be honest,” DeLaGarza said. “The crowd was loud and for me it was my first time playing [there] in front of Sounders fans.”
The Sounders actually put a ball in the back of the net almost instantaneously but their first-minute goal was nullified due to offside. Still, the buzz at Qwest Field unsettled DeLaGarza initially.
“You start out a little shaky, but after you win your first ball or complete your first pass you kind of feel a little bit better,” he said. “The first time I touched the ball I might have fouled someone so I was a little shaky.”
Playing before a home crowd and in familiar surroundings should only help DeLaGarza feel more comfortable, and continuing his solid play of late should only help shed whatever labels have been placed on him.
“That was the big one, my height,” DeLaGarza said of his negative criticisms. “Playing in the middle I think I’ve done well so far. If I keep playing the way I am and not letting people get headers over me I think I’ll be fine.”
The Galaxy are ahead 1-0 on aggregate goals in the series and host Seattle in the second game of the two-leg, home-and-home Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday, November 7 at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN. BUY TICKETS
With a win or tie on Sunday, they will host the Western Conference Championship against FC Dallas at The Home Depot Center on Sunday, November 14 at 6 p.m. BUY TICKETS
Save up to 33% and get both games: BUY TICKETS