CARSON, Calif. – A familiar figure manned the LA Galaxy’s central defense during the club’s training session on Monday.
It wasn’t A.J. DeLaGarza or Omar Gonzalez, both of whom are with the U.S. National Team preparing for Tuesday’s friendly against Canada in Houston. None other than Leonardo was on the back line and impressing Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena.
“Today even in the little game we played he showed his strength as a defender,” Arena said. “We’re hopeful he continues to make progress.”
That Leonardo, who turns 24 next month, was on the field certainly was good news not only for the team but especially for a player once regarded as one of the club’s brightest prospects, until he was sidelined by a devastating knee injury two seasons ago.
Leonardo, who originally joined the two-time defending MLS Cup champions on loan from Brazilian club Sao Paolo, along with Juninho and Alex Cazumba, tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his right knee during second half stoppage time of a 2-1 victory at Chicago in April 2011. He missed the rest of the 2011 season and all of the 2012 preseason as he recovered from and rehabilitated his knee.
After playing 10 minutes in a training game against the Los Angeles Blues of the USL Pro on April 24, Leonardo made his first appearance in an MLS competition in more than a year on May 8, playing 45 minutes in a Reserve League game against San Jose. Late that month, after being an unused substitute in losses to Chivas USA, San Jose and Houston, the 6-foot-2 center back made his official return, playing the full 90 minutes in a U.S. Open Cup Third Round defeat to the Carolina Railhawks.
Reserve Highlights: LA Galaxy vs Portland Timbers
However, less than a week after that game, Leonardo suffered a set back, experiencing severe discomfort in his surgically repaired knee just 10 minutes into a Reserve League game in Portland, a game that he had given his team a 1-0 lead in after just three minutes, powering a shot past Timbers’ goalkeeper Joe Bendik from a Kyle Nakazawa freekick.
Again placed on the Disabled List and unable to train, it wasn’t until last October that Leonardo started to regain confidence in his knee. He spent the offseason back home in Brazil, training five days a week, and arrived in training camp with a rebuilt right knee he said is about “90 to 95 percent.”
“Right now, the knee’s really good,” he said through an interpreter Monday. “I think it will be 100 percent when we start playing games.”
Leonardo said he doesn’t think much of the unfortunate play in Chicago that literally occurred with his team protecting a one-goal lead in the game’s dying moments.
“That’s the past and I can’t be thinking about the past,” he said. “I’m a different player now, with a different approach and a different mindset. I have a different body.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Chicago or Portland, I have to keep moving forward. My goal here is to work hard and show Bruce that I’ve recovered and my leg is strong enough to be on the field.”
Leonardo disagrees with the notion that he became almost a forgotten man in these parts during his lengthy rehabilitation.
“On the contrary,” he said. “I got a lot of support from the team, a lot of support from my family and a lot of support from God. When you have faith, those things will work out.
“Right now I’m slowly getting back to where I need to be.”
Leonardo, who came to Los Angeles as a raw rookie plying his trade in a foreign country and with little, if any, English skills, said he is light years ahead of where he once was on and off the field.
“Definitely a different player,” he said. “More experienced. I’ve seen lot of games and I also have a different perspective on life. I’m calmer now and more relaxed as far as how I go and approach things. When I came here I was very young. Now I’m 24. In that time I’ve seen a lot of games and lot of things. That made me wiser. Now it’s a case of showing that on the field.
“That’s what I’m hoping to do this season."