CARSON, Calif. – Leonardo's return to health and rookie Kofi Opare's progression has the LA Galaxy feeling rather giddy about their backline options. Increasing depth, especially at center back, could be meaningful as the reigning MLS Cup champs head into their stretch run looking to snag a playoff berth – and perhaps more – and a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
The Galaxy (11-9-4), who play Saturday evening at Vancouver (9 pm ET, watch on MLS Live), have been shaking up their usual back four this month, and they've found they have more options after Leonardo's solid play in the International Champions Cup exhibitions and LA's last two league outings and Opare's unexpected performance in Tuesday's CCL victory over Cartagines.
Leonardo, who missed much of two seasons with knee problems and was sidelined through June and July by an ankle injury, has started five straight games in central defense, including all three ICC matches. His return to form has enabled Bruce Arena to move A.J. DeLaGarza to right back and push Sean Franklin up the wing into midfield, giving the Galaxy – with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane teamed up top – their most potent attack.
“[Leonardo] just continues to get better,” Arena said. “We knew it was going to take time. He had a few minor setbacks this year but now is headed in the right direction.”
The big Brazilian played in LA's first nine matches this year, starting seven of them, but had seen first-team action just once – in May's U.S. Open Cup defeat – after his red card in a mid-April loss at FC Dallas. He made his return against Real Madrid in the ICC, then got the call again in the Juventus and AC Milan games, then was next to Gonzalez in the 3-3 draw two weeks ago at Dallas and last week's 4-2 win over Real Salt Lake.
“I feel good right now,” Leonardo said through a translator. “I didn't play a whole year, then I came back last year and I played some, then I didn't play some games, then I played again, didn't play again. Right now I have to thank God I am getting games, and I have to keep working hard to maintain that rhythm.”
Associate head coach Dave Sarachan said the primary issue with Leonardo has been his health.
“Now that he's gotten this good, long stretch of being available, he's gotten into a rhythm,” Sarachan said. “And when you get into that rhythm and you get minutes, you get confidence. ... Now the true player that we felt we knew a year and a half ago is starting to emerge.”
Tommy Meyer, whom the Galaxy believe can also play at right back, provides depth in central defense – he certainly impressed through last year's playoffs. Now Opare, a second-round draft choice out of Michigan, has climbed into the discussion. He had played in seven Reserve League matches before making his first-team debut in the second half against Real Madrid, and he got another half against AC Milan.
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His performance in the 2-0 triumph over Cartagines told his bosses he could be trusted when the games really matter.
“We actually made that exact point after [Tuesday's] game, internally with the staff,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “We learned a lot from that game, knowing now we have even more depth in that position – and others, actually. Opare was a little bit of a wild card, having not seen him. Knowing now he pulled through it with high marks, really, it gives us flexibility and depth.”
The Galaxy believe they have the deepest collection of central defenders in MLS.
“Kofi from all accounts has been getting better and better,” Donovan said. “Tommy's been training really well and playing well when he's gotten chances. Obviously, A.J. can play there, Omar [Gonzalez] is Omar, and Leonardo's been good since he's been back. When you look all over the field, we're building depth everywhere.”