CARSON, Calif. – The weight of expectations on the shoulders of A.J. DeLaGarza are immense.
The 5-foot-9 defender has been tasked with stepping into a leadership role for the defending MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy after longtime center back partner Omar Gonzalez suffered an ACL tear during the offseason that will cost the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year most, if not all, of the 2012 MLS season.
On Friday, for the third consecutive preseason game, DeLaGarza was joined in central defense by rookie Tommy Meyer during the Galaxy’s 1-0 preseason defeat to the Houston Dynamo. With a first-year defender by his side, DeLaGarza has had no choice but to take his newfound role in stride.
“I’m trying to take that leadership role and talk to everyone around me,” DeLaGarza told reporters on Friday after the scrimmage. “[Meyer is] still learning that role to take leadership as well and he’s doing fine at it. Not too many times [has the defense] been broken down in these first few games, so it looks pretty good.”
During the club’s first three preseason tilts, DeLaGarza has assumed Gonzalez’s role organizing the back line, providing a calming presence for Meyer and the rest of the team. On Friday, DeLaGarza appeared solid in that role yet again, preventing the Dynamo from generating any pressure through the heart of the Galaxy defense.
But leading the team on the field is not an issue for the ever-composed DeLaGarza. Rather, it's serving as a mentor for Meyer seems to have put the third-year defender into a completely new situation.
“I was never really coached,” said DeLaGarza of prior mentoring experiences. “When Gregg [Berhalter] was here, he kind of focused on Omar and I was always being moved around, so I’m still learning the center back position as well. But, whatever I learned from what Tony Sanneh told me or Gregg or Omar, I can pay it forward.”
DeLaGarza and Meyer will get a little weight lifted off their shoulders when Brazilian defender Leonardo regains his fitness after suffering an ACL injury last season. Expected to return to full fitness in April, Leonardo arrived in Southern California on Thursday after signing with the Galaxy on a free transfer from Brazilian club São Paulo on Feb. 8.
“He looks much further along than the last time that we saw him,” head coach Bruce Arena told reporters of Leonardo on Friday. “He’s been on the gym on the rehab. He just got here yesterday and we’re not that far along yet and evaluating where he is and setting a schedule week to week.”
The Galaxy continue their preseason docket next week against the Montreal Impact on Feb. 14 and Chivas USA on Feb. 16.
Adam Serrano writes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.