Photo courtesy of ISI Photos
CARSON, Calif. – Entering the 2011 MLS season, A.J. DeLaGarza was already a key part of the LA Galaxy. But no one knew exactly knew where he was actually going to play.
Adept at any position along the back line, injuries necessitated a move to center back and DeLaGarza became entrenched next to Omar Gonzalez as the season progressed.
Since early January, DeLaGarza has essentially started the process over. Currently in camp with the US national team, he's trying to show well at both center back and right back as he looks to make his debut with the USMNT.
And although he is willing to play wherever gives him the best chance of seeing the field, perhaps a slight change in mentality is necessary if he is to play on the outside.
“I don't know if it's nice to be back there,” DeLaGarza told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday when asked about playing at right back. “I'm kind of used to playing in the middle. It's fun to be out there. You get to go forward, you get to defend and I kind of think of myself as a pure defender at the moment.”
The US senior team scrimmaged twice against Caleb Porter’s Under-23 side over the past week at the Home Depot Center. In the first match – a 4-0 win for the first team – DeLaGarza played in the middle. In the second – a 1-1 draw – he played on the right.
But no matter where he finds himself, he has his heart set on one thing.
“I want to be a defender first,” DeLaGarza said. “Defend first, attack second.”
Of course, all those efforts are focused on one thing: seizing the opportunity in front of him.
DeLaGarza is one of several young and internationally untested players in camp. The team’s month-long gathering culminates with games against Venezuela in Glendale, Ariz., on Saturday (9 pm ET, ESPN3/Galavisión) and Panama in Panama City on Jan. 25, and, like everyone else, the Galaxy stalwart wants to turn this chance to impress into something more.
“We know what's coming up in two-and-a-half years, we know what's coming up in qualifying and guys really want to make a name for themselves here and they have three weeks to do that,” he said. “It's really special to be here.”
Perhaps the only thing that could have made it more special would have been the opportunity to do so alongside longtime teammate and friend Omar Gonzalez. The 2011 MLS Defender of the Year was called in but withdrew to pursue a loan deal with FC Nürnberg. However, Gonzalez tore ligaments in his knee at the end of his first training session in Germany and has been ruled out for a minimum of seven months.
“It's very tough to see him go out,” DeLaGarza said of his fellow Galaxy defender. “At this point in his career, he was really at a peak and possibly going to make a move. It sucks for him that he's going to be missing seven months, but at the same time he's going to have a long career and hopefully he can bounce back from this.”
So while the dream of partnering with Gonzalez with the US may not be realized anytime soon, it’s not one that needs to die off either. After all, neither could have envisioned how much their careers would become entwined when they first met at the University of Maryland.
“I don't think we even saw each other playing professional soccer together but now look at that, what's happened three years here with LA and to win a championship in college and now here is pretty special,” DeLaGarza said. “We'd love to play with each other at the national team level and hopefully one day we can look forward to that, and maybe we can win a World Cup together."
Luis Bueno covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional reporting by Jonah Freedman.