CARSON, Calif. – Most of the attention went to Mike Magee's hat trick, Robbie Keane's involvement in every goal and the superb midfield work by Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho, but the feel-good story of the LA Galaxy's victory over the Chicago Fire on Sunday stood strong in central defense.
Leonardo was more or less flawless over 90 minutes in his first league appearance in nearly two years, teaming with Omar Gonzalez to all but slam shut the door on the Fire's chances as the Galaxy romped to a 4-0 triumph at the Home Depot Center.
Leonardo, who looked good in preseason and was given a first XI spot when head coach Bruce Arena pushed A.J. DeLaGarza to right back and Sean Franklin to the right side of midfield – among the changes made necessary by Landon Donovan's ongoing absence – appeared to miss nary a step since he went down with torn knee ligaments near the end of the Galaxy's win at Chicago on April 17, 2011.
“I think even as late as last November, we weren't sure how he would show up in January, but he's put an awful lot of time into getting himself back,” Arena said. “He has been very determined and worked real hard to get to this point. What can you say? ... [We were] real happy to see Leonardo coming back. [He and Gonzalez] held up real well, just a real good performance by those two.”
Leonardo needed 13 months to return from his knee injury, played in one first-team match – last May's US Open Cup loss to the Carolina RailHawks – and then reinjured his right knee in an MLS Reserve League game last June in Portland. He missed the rest of the season.
Sunday's game, after missing 71 MLS matches, playoffs included, meant the world to him.
“A lot of things were going through my head. Not just today, but even yesterday I was thinking about today,” he said after the game. “The fact that, yes, it was almost two years ago and, yes, this very exact team in Chicago when I got injured. And all the training sessions, games and games leading up to this moment, I was thinking about everything. And I leave with a good feeling, that I’m ready not just for this game, but the season and many more games.”
The 25-year-old Brazilian says he's not worried about the knee, that he doesn't even “think about my knee. I think more about the muscle mass on my knee and giving it enough rest, which I would normally do. I don’t think about the knee being strong enough or not being strong enough.”
That's very good news for the Galaxy, which may have their best center-back depth in years once Tommy Meyer returns from a hamstring injury. Leonardo figures to battle for a starting job, and Arena might opt to keep DeLaGarza wide and Franklin in midfield even after Donovan returns to action next month.