CARSON, Calif. – For most his 29 regular-season games, LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez was somewhere between a standout and a dominant force.
The league took notice.
Gonzalez was named MLS Defender of the Year on Wednesday, an honor that enthused the normally mild-mannered youngster.
“I was pretty pumped about it,” Gonzalez said after training. “This is a huge award and it’s a great accolade for me personally, being my third year here in this league. I was close to winning it last year but it just wasn’t enough. I put a lot of hard work going into this year [and] my hard work paid off.”
At 23, Gonzalez becomes the youngest player in league history to claim the award. The Galaxy had 17 clean sheets and allowed just 20 goals in Gonzalez’s 29 games played this season. In the five games he didn’t play, LA conceded eight goals.
His consistency helped him improve from a season ago, when Gonzalez was a finalist for the award.
“He’s been our rock this year,” teammate Gregg Berhalter said. “You add to it the offensive qualities he has in scoring the goals, his dominance in the air, his presence and the type of year he’s had, I’m really proud of him. He’s come a long way and not only that, but his consistency has been there this year. That’s the one thing that’s improved from last year, he’s been steady almost every game.”
The Galaxy needed Gonzalez to be the anchor in central defense. He missed the first three games of the year due to injury, then came back and began fulfilling his duties on April 2 in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia. He spent time alongside Leonardo until the Brazilian injured his knee on April 17 and was lost for the year. A.J. DeLaGarza and Gonzalez paired together for a time, and eventually Berhalter regained his own health and played in the middle until a foot injury in August.
No matter who was at his side, though, Gonzalez said he felt at ease.
“It’s been pretty easy playing with those three guys because everyone plays hard, everyone’s organized and they’re just ready to play game in and game out," he said. "Whoever it was, I was very comfortable with them.”
The Galaxy had a stellar defensive record this season, allowing just 28 goals in 34 games and becoming the only team in MLS to allow fewer than one goal a game. Philadelphia and Real Salt Lake were next in line for fewest goals allowed, each team conceding 36 times.
Gonzalez said his honor was just as much due to his teammates as the work he put in.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be winning this award,” Gonzalez said. “Todd [Dunivant] has been steady in the left back position, A.J. has moved around the back line and has done well game in and game out, it’s been crazy. Different people have stepped up this year. … From top to bottom, everyone bought into what Bruce [Arena] was selling – defending first, everyone get into positions and everyone did a great job.”
While Berhalter played in only 10 games this season, the former Bundesliga veteran was instrumental in Gonzalez’s success. The two paired together well in 2009, and Gonzalez’s play that year helped him win the Rookie of the Year award. Before this season, Gonzalez and Berhalter worked on their own in order to improve the youngster’s footwork and comfort with the ball.
That extra work helped Gonzalez reach the next level in his development.
“Everything I’ve done has helped me to win this award this year," he said. "Everything has a price. I put in the work and I reaped the reward.”