CARSON, Calif. – Three-fourths of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s back line is seemingly set heading into Sunday’s MLS Cup playoff opener (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/Deportes).
It’s that last spot, however, that could be a critical factor in their matchup against Seattle.
Pairing with Omar Gonzalez in central defense will be either veteran Gregg Berhalter or second-year man A.J. DeLaGarza. Both players are in the mix to start, but as of Wednesday, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena had not decided who that would be.
“We’re getting a little healthier there with Berhalter coming back,” Arena said. “I think we’ll be alright. Whatever combination we go with, we’ll be fine.”
Along with outside backs Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant, Berhalter was a first-choice center back along with Gonzalez for most of the season’s first half.
After missing the first four games of the season, Berhalter started 15 of the next 16 fixtures. But after coming down with a mysterious ailment following a 1-0 win at New York on Aug. 14, the two-time World Cup veteran has played just once, in a 3-1 loss to Colorado on Oct. 16.
DeLaGarza has filled in at central defense, the position he played at the University of Maryland, and he helped lead the Galaxy to a season-ending, Supporters’ Shield-clinching 2-1 win over FC Dallas on Sunday.
“It was good having A.J. back there (against Dallas),” right back Franklin said. “Gregg back there is more of a voice, more of a commander. It was good he was able to rest; it’s good to have AJ in there getting some minutes. He’s been playing well in practice and he played well (against Dallas). Having A.J. back there brings some more speed to the backline.”
DeLaGarza filled in at center back for the first time in MLS in a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake in April. Having played his entire collegiate career with Gonzalez in central defense — they won a national championship together — it did not take long for DeLaGarza to adjust back to his natural position.
He has apparently earned Arena’s trust as he has filled in down the stretch at center back, along with Leonardo and Yohance Marshall. DeLaGarza said he is confident in his abilities even if few outside the team are.
“People kind of wrote me off as being a center back in this league,” DeLaGarza said. “It would be great to be with (Gonzalez) and hopefully win a championship again.”
The Galaxy’s defense was a strength early in the season as the team picked up 10 shutouts in their first 14 games. But in the final 16 games of the season, the Galaxy picked up just two shutouts – 1-0 wins at New York on Aug. 14 and Philadelphia on Oct. 7.
Stopping the bleeding, though, is more a requirement of more than just the central defense pairing, whomever it may be.
“It starts up top, and we’ve got to be solid in the back — keeping our marks — and we haven’t done that lately,” DeLaGarza said. “We’ve got to do that. If we can do that, we’re going to have a good chance to win.”
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