LA Galaxy defender Leonardo battles Orlando City SC's Cyle Larin
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Leonardo emerges as LA Galaxy's best defender after years of finding footing in MLS

CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy's preference for Leonardo as Omar Gonzalez's partner in central defense speaks volumes about the Brazilian veteran's growth and his importance to the club going forward.

The 6-foot-2 Leonardo has started 24 league games in the middle this year, as first-choice partner to LA's perennial Best XI choice, after spending most of his first five years in MLS as an increasingly utilized fill-in for Gonzalez or A.J. DeLaGarza.

It's not on a whim.

“We think that with the full package of physical play and honest, hard defending, Leo's been really very good this year for us,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “The size and strength [compared with the 5-foot-9 DeLaGarza] is certainly a little bit of a factor, but it's more on Leo having a good season. ...

“In the history of him being here, Leo's had a lot of struggles with injury that have not allowed him a full evolution, let's say, in that position. This year, touch wood, he's had a consistent run of health and arguably been as good a defender as we've had.”

He's done it in an oft-tumultuous season that has seen change all over the field for LA (14-9-9), which seek to keep their Western Conference title hopes alive Sunday at home against Portland (7 pm ET; FS1). Consistency has been an issue all season, a solid summer stretch aside.

“I think he's probably been one of the most consistent players we've had this year,” said DeLaGarza, the Galaxy's first-choice right back, who has made eight starts in central defense. “He's good right now. He dominant in the air, he wins balls – we just watched video of him breaking up a couple of big plays, blocking shots and stopping guys from dribbling through, and that's good for him. I think his confidence is high right now.”

Leonardo, now 27, arrived on loan in 2010 from São Paulo, along with Juninho, and was given the opportunity to win the spot next to Gonzalez the following year. He tore his ACL that April, reinjured it in a reserve game 14 months later and lost two years. He made 17 competitive starts in 2013 and became a key part of the defensive rotation last year.

He was a no-doubt first choice center back at the start of the season, as DeLaGarza dealt with a preseason injury, and convinced Arena that he belonged.

“He's had a real good year,” Arena said. “He's gotten better by being more consistent, as a starting point. And for the most part, his defending has been pretty solid. ... He's probably, out of all our defenders this year, had the best year.”

What does he do best?

“His defending,” Arena said. “He's a good one-on-one defender, is certainly good in the air. He's pretty solid in the defensive third of the field.”

Leonardo says it's all about the opportunity to play.

“When you play more, you have more experience, more confidence, [a belief that] everything is going to be OK,” Leonardo said. “It's good for me. I don't play for two years, like 2011-2012. It's a long time. 2013, when I came back, I played sometimes 10 games, then stay out five or six games.

“This year I play almost 90 percent [of the time]. And I know I can do better. I can do more. I can show more.”