HOUSTON – The Houston Dynamo’s happiness about returning the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs took a bit of a sour turn on Tuesday, when it was announced that right back A.J. DeLaGarza will miss the remainder of the season and the start of next year due to a torn left ACL suffered in Sunday's regular-season finale.
DeLaGarza, who, along with Leonardo, was acquired via trade in the offseason from the LA Galaxy, will undergo surgery in the coming days. The 29-year-old played a huge role for Houston in 2017, will now become the Dynamo’s biggest fan as Houston takes on Sporting Kansas City in Thursday’s Knockout Round game (9:30 pm ET; UniMas in the US | TSN4, TVAS in Canada | MLS LIVE Free Stream).
His absence gives Houston a big hole to fill. DeLaGarza started 30 games in defense and wore the captain’s armband on Sunday before suffering his injury.
With the savvy veteran sidelined, who will the Dynamo pick to fill his spot in the starting XI? Head coach Wilmer Cabrera is looking at several options.
“Kevin [Garcia] has played there. Jalil [Anibaba] came in [against Chicago Fire] and did well. And also we have Adolfo [Machado] who plays there for Panama, so we have options,” Cabrera said. “We will be fine, but of course we’re sad that we lost one of our players. He was outstanding for us and we wish him a quick recovery but we have to move on.”
Anibaba, who only registered 462 minutes of playing time in eight appearances this season, seems the likely candidate to replace DeLaGarza, but Cabrera wouldn’t name him as the outright replacement.
If called upon, what does Anibaba bring to the table as a right back?
“In this game specifically, I know Kansas City well,” said Anibaba, who played with Sporting KC in 2015. “Obviously, you can’t replicate his [De La Garza’s] experience and what he’s done for this club and in MLS. For me, it’s just a matter of being solid defensively. That’s my strong suit. Communication is big for me and I’m a firm believer that if our defense is solid we’re going to win.”
Dynamo ‘keeper Tyler Deric noted that Anibaba’s has had a positive attitude all season long despite not getting the same playing time he got last season. In 2016, Anibaba played in 30 games and logged 2,614 minutes.
“It’s been tough for him not getting the minutes, but you have to give credit to the guy,” Deric said. “Mentally he’s tuned in. He’s ready every day. He comes out here in training and puts it all forward. He deserved the work that he put in this weekend.”
While he only has three games under his belt, Garcia, who played under Cabrera while he was coaching the Dynamo’s USL-affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC last year, says he’s adjusted to the speed of MLS.
“Defensively I’ve been sound and I’ve been communicating and steady at right back,” Garcia said. “Playoffs is a different mentality. It’s a different approach and you have to bring the intensity and be ready for the match on Thursday.”