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Final

Oft-injured Leonardo hopes this is finally his year to show what he can do in LA Galaxy defense

CARSON, Calif. – Just when Leonardo began to show just how tantalizingly effective he could be alongside Omar Gonzalez in the LA Galaxy defense last year, an all-too common roadblock re-emerged.

A late-season adductor strain forced the Brazilian center back to the sidelines for a couple of weeks, and rookie Kofi Opare stepped up and performed well beyond expectations, winning the job for the stretch run.

Injuries have limited Leonardo to just 18 first-team games during his first three seasons with the Galaxy. Now, he is back, fully healthy and making a welcome impression as he battles within a deep group of center backs for a starting role when LA opens the season in nine days.

“Leo's doing well,” said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who has worked to improve depth in the back for three seasons running. “He's had a real quality preseason, and there's no reason to believe 2014 can't be a real good year for him.”

A knee injury ended his first Galaxy campaign, in 2010, just as it was gaining steam, and another knee injury in 2011 forced him to the sidelines for nearly two years. He showed off some refined tools – athleticism, strength and an ability to play the ball – when he emerged as a real contributor last year. But an ankle injury and then, in September, the adductor ailment ended his ascent.

“Last year, I had two [injury] problems,” said Leonardo, who is doing interviews in English this season. “This year is different. I take more gym situations, focus, and [have] faith in God.

“I think it's a little bit difficult [to go through repeated injuries]. Myself, when I stop for one week, it's like one month. I need more training: running, more playing, more games. I think this year is different. We'll see.”

His teammates hope so.

“Leonardo coming in and being as good as he has this preseason has been great for him and great for his confidence,” left back Todd Dunivant said. “When he's been healthy, he's been on the field for us these past four years. He's obviously had a hard time staying healthy, but when he's healthy, he's a first-choice guy. It's nice to see him playing right now.”

Gonzalez is the one certainty in central defense, but he'll likely miss at least two months for the World Cup. A.J. DeLaGarza is a veteran presence, but he's the first-choice right back. Opare impressed last year and is pressing for a starting job. And Tommy Meyer, who was Gonzalez's partner down the stretch when LA won the 2012 MLS Cup, hopes to compete as he also recovers from injury.

Rookie Kyle Venter is in the mix, too.

“There's a lot of players at center back,” said Arena, adding that competition has been stronger than in past preseasons. “Whether there's depth in that remains to be seen. Hopefully, they can keep making progress that will allow us to have some very good depth.”