CARSON, Calif. – LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena doesn’t mince words when he talks about the importance of Omar Gonzalez to the defense.
“We haven’t lost a game since he’s been back in, so it definitely means something,” he said with a straight face after training on Wednesday. “We’re a little unlucky not to have a few more shutouts, but he does mean a lot.
“He’s a player that’s been viewed as an All-Star player in the league, so whenever you lose a player of that quality it hurts.”
Gonzalez, a third-year pro out of the University of Maryland and 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year, missed the first three games of the 2011 season with a strained right shoulder. He made his first appearance of the year in a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union on April 2 and has been his usual fixture on the back line since.
“That first game back was tough for me,” he said. “It was my first game of the season and it was the second or third for everyone else, and I really wanted to have a positive impact. There were some nerves there, but I think I did well and I’ve been playing like me ever since.”
LA have allowed just two goals in the last four games heading into Saturday night’s clash against the expansion Portland Timbers at The Home Depot Center. The 22-year-old central defender also scored his first goal of the season on a header in last Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire and quickly has rounded into top form.
His teammate on the back line, veteran left back Todd Dunivant, said Gonzalez’s presence in the lineup is critical to the Galaxy’s success.
“He’s huge, such a big body back there,” Dunivant said of the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder. “I think his speed is underrated. I don’t think people give him enough credit for that. He covers a lot of ground, too.
“He’s obviously very important for us. He’s dangerous on set pieces and he’s coming into his own.”
Gonzalez’s presence is even more critical now, given that the Galaxy lost his partner in central defense, Leonardo, to a season-ending knee injury, and he feels he’s close to 100 percent. He would just rather not be watching from the sideline again.
The three games he missed this season were the first ones he’s missed because of injury since he came into the league in 2009. He played all 30 of the club’s games that season and then missed just two games in 2010 because of yellow card accumulation.
“We tried to tell him it’s a long season and it was just three games,” Dunivant said. “It’s never happened to him before, but it’s not going to be the last time and it’s something he’s going to have to deal with.
“He’s come back, he was smart the first couple of games just keeping things simple and now you can really start to see him excel again.”
Not a moment too soon, Gonzalez said.
“That just really hurt me personally,” he said about his three-game absence this season. “Those were the first games that I’ve missed. For me to get hurt was tough, but I just fought through it and focused on getting back, and now I’m back.”