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Galaxy's Berhalter returns after elongated injury spell

CARSON, Calif. — After missing most of the final three months of the 2010 season due to injury, Gregg Berhalter was poised for a strong return in 2011.

A preseason knee injury got in the way, but after an initial diagnosis ruled him out for four weeks, the injury seemed like a mere speed bump in Berhalter’s path.

With three months gone in the 2011 campaign, though, Berhalter finally overcame the injury and made his season debut, coming on for the final seven minutes of the LA Galaxy’s 3-1 win at Colorado on Saturday.

How did Berhalter feel about finally playing in a regular-season game?

“It was a relief,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “I know that sounds a little bit negative, but it’s been tough for me this year with the injury.”

Berhalter was a mainstay in the LA Galaxy’s defense, not just in 2010 but since his arrival in early 2009. He helped solidify the backline in his first season, helping lead the Galaxy to MLS Cup ’09 and playing a large role in helping catapult the club to the top of the table a year ago.

Now, though, he has been severely limited in what he’s been able to do on the field. While it may not have been his longest injury layoff of his career, missing out on time now is much more difficult than it has ever been.

“At this stage, you can’t afford really to be injured. I know that there’s not much time left in my career and you want to be there,” Berhalter said. “That’s why it’s even more nerve-wracking.”

In the offseason, Berhalter took on extra duties as an assistant coach while maintaining his role as central defender. However, he refused to say if he was considering retirement and said he was focused only on the job at hand.

At the start of preseason, Berhalter was penciled in as a starter but suffered a sprained ligament in his knee, which was supposed to keep him out four weeks.

“After the fourth week, I re-injured it in training again, so it was another six weeks after that and they pushed it back even further, so we’re talking about 12 weeks total injury time,” he said. “After 12 weeks, you have to get fit again, so add another month onto that. So we’re talking about 16 weeks being out. A four-weeker turned into a disaster.

Berhalter, however, has been a constant presence at training throughout the course of his injury. He has spent time coaching players and talking to them long after training sessions are over. Typically, Berhalter has been among the last to leave training sessions, whether he’s been fit enough to play or not.

While he has not been involved in the day-to-day grind on the field much, he still has been an integral part of the club due to his coaching duties.

“From that standpoint, it’s been great because I haven’t lost contact with the team,” Berhalter said. “Sometimes injured players have the tendency to lose a little bit of contact with the team, but since I’ve maintained a coaching role, I’ve been around and have been involved.”

From an assistant coach’s perspective, Berhalter has seen the growth of the defense, particularly in AJ De La Garza. After Leonardo blew out his knee and was ruled out for the season, De La Garza stepped in and has played admirably on the back line.

So is Berhalter content then with letting the De La Garza-Omar Gonzalez pairing stand? The coach in him might say so, but the player in him definitely does not agree.

“I expect to fight for a position. That’s my nature and that’s my mentality. I expect to be playing,” he said. “Competition is better. The harder you make it on the coaches, the more it helps the team.”