CARSON, Calif. – The irony was not lost on neither LA Galaxy central defender Leonardo nor his teammates in Sunday’s season-opening 4-0 victory over the Chicago Fire in front of a crowd of 20,124 at The Home Depot Center.
It was almost two years ago, on April 17, 2011, that the 25-year-old suffered a potentially career-threatening injury to his right knee (torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments) during stoppage time of a 2-1 victory over the same Fire at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.
But there he was Sunday, holding down the center of the Galaxy defense alongside Omar Gonzalez and turning in a solid, satisfying performance.
Highlights: LA 4, Chicago 0
“He’s been very determined and has worked real hard to come back,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said after Leonardo went the full 90 minutes. “What more can you say? It was a difficult injury he had, and it’s been on and off two years now since he’s been back.”
Said fellow defender A.J. DeLaGarza, “It’s crazy. He got hurt against Chicago, and in his first game back it’s Chicago. Seeing him that day in Chicago, when he was passed out, it was sad. But now look.
“He’s finally back and solid for us.”
Leonardo admitted he spent a restless Saturday thinking about making his first regular season appearance after such a long layoff.
He said it was gratifying, to say the least.
“A lot of things were going through my head. Not just today, but even yesterday I was thinking about today,” he said through an interpreter. “The fact that yes, it was almost two years ago and yes, this very exact team in Chicago when I got injured. And all the training sessions and games leading up to this moment I was thinking about everything.
“And I leave with a good feeling, that I’m ready not just for this game but the season and many more games.”
Leonardo, who originally joined the two-time defending MLS Cup champions on loan from Sao Paolo along with Juninho and Alex Cazumba, returned to action, playing in a pair of Reserve League games and an Open Cup game, only to suffer a setback in early June that ruled him for the remainder of the 2012 season. It wasn’t until late last year that his confidence in the knee started to return. He returned to his native Brazil during the offseason, trained five days a week and returned to Carson for training camp anxious to regain his old form.
He said he never lost confidence that he would play again – “I had my faith in God and I just kept working hard,” he said – and is well past the point of thinking about whether the knee is stable enough to permit him to perform on the field.
He said he’s feeling more and more comfortable.
“Right now I’m hitting my stride and I’m ready for the season,” he said.
His teammates definitely have taken notice.
“It’s an incredible story, really,” veteran left back Todd Dunivant said. “He’s had a great preseason, built up slowly and he’s gotten the trust of his coaches and teammates.
“He’s done fantastic.”