Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By ADAM SERRANO
From college to the pros, AJ DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez have always enjoyed success together.
Despite many pundits discounting the Galaxy's chances without injured defender Gregg Berhalter, the pair teamed up well in the club's Semifinal series victory over the Seattle Sounders. They were part of a defensive effort that shut down a strong Sounders attack that entered the playoffs as the hottest in MLS.
With their chemistry on the field shining, the former Maryland Terrapins teammates stifled Blaise N'Kufo and Fredy Montero en route to the victory. With Berhalter doubtful to play in the return leg on Sunday, DeLaGarza expects to continue his role when the Galaxy host FC Dallas on Sunday.
"Dallas is a threat with a great attacking core, they defend well and with Hartman, they're good all around the park and we're going to need to be ready," DeLaGarza said. "They're a very athletic team with guys like Ferriera, Chavez and others who can get up and down the field and we'll need to contain them and counter when they do go forward."
Teammates at Maryland, they backstopped the Terrapins' run to the NCAA national championship in 2008, helping the team to 15 clean sheets in 26 games, including seven in eight games throughout the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The two were then drafted together by the Galaxy in 2009 to help rebuild what was the league's worse defense in 2008.
This season, DeLaGarza has played in a variety of different positions from right back to left back during the Galaxy's Supporters' Shield run. DeLaGarza became an option at center back after Berhalter went down with various injuries during the latter part of the season.
The DeLaGarza-Gonzalez partnership truly got an opportunity to shine in the final match of the season when the Galaxy defeated FC Dallas, 2-1. Although the pair had played together before, the victory over Dallas solidified DeLaGarza's position as Gonzalez's partner in central defense. In the series with the Sounders, DeLaGarza performed well shutting down Montero throughout the match. Now asked by Bruce Arena to rehash their success at Maryland by bringing the Galaxy to the MLS Cup for the second time in two years, the former college teammates are comfortable playing side-by-side.
"Things are going great between me and AJ, and I hope that the coaches keep us together," said Gonzalez. "It shows on the field because we're really comfortable with each other and not much has to be said because I know where he is at all times."
Perhaps the reason for the success is their contrasting defensive styles. Gonzalez is the 6-foot-5 physical centerback while DeLaGarza stands 5-foot-9 and relies mostly on his speed and tenacity on the field. With Berhalter healthy and ready to play, Arena has chosen to keep DeLaGarza in central defense for the duration of the playoffs.
Although DeLaGarza does not have the experience that Berhalter holds, the members of the back line are confident in Gonzalez and DeLaGarza's ability to repeat their prior success with the Galaxy.
"AJ has stepped in every time that he's been asked to and done fantastic for us in the big games in the last little bit," said defender Todd Dunivant. They're in good form right now and they won a championship at Maryland and they're carrying that success over to us."
Hosting the Western Conference Final for the second time in consecutive years, the Galaxy are motivated to return to Final With the club's playing for the right to represent the West in Toronto, it is likely that FC Dallas will target DeLaGarza and force him to reprise the success that he had against the Sounders.
With his Galaxy only one match away from returning to the MLS Cup Final for the second year in a row, DeLaGarza is excited for his opportunity against the FC Dallas and to line up with Gonzalez.
"It's a crazy because people doubted that I could play in the middle, saying that I would be a left back or a right back, but here it is my second year and I've played a handful of games and everything is going well so far," said DeLaGarza. "It's awesome to be with [Gonzalez],who I won a national championship with in college and to have have that success here, it would be tremendous for the both us."