photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
CARSON, Calif. – When pundits and fans talk about the Los Angeles Galaxy's success this season, the names most often mentioned are David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez.
One player whose name is not mentioned as frequently but probably should be is A.J. DeLaGarza.
In his third season out of Maryland, DeLaGarza has proven to be an important cog for the Galaxy, playing all across the back line on a defense that allowed the fewest goals in the league during the regular season.
"He's been real good, very versatile. He's played probably every position in the back line," said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena. "He's played a little midfield I think in a few games as well. He's just been a very good player for us for three years."
It is that versatility that saw DeLaGarza start in a career-high 30 games this year, and is part of the reason why Los Angeles is playing for an MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center on Sunday against the Houston Dynamo.
Because of his 5-foot-9 stature and his solid but unspectacular style of play, DeLaGarza is easy to overlook. His contributions, however, go beyond what he does on the field.
"That definitely is an advantage for me just because we know each other so well," said Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez of his familiarity with DeLaGarza (the two played together at the University of Maryland before being drafted by the Galaxy in 2009). "I'm able to play more free and just not having to worry about where he's at on the field because I know he's on the same page as me."
DeLaGarza played just over half an hour the last time the Galaxy played in an MLS Cup, a penalty kick shootout loss to Real Salt Lake in 2009. Barring injury or any unforeseen circumstances, he'll likely go the distance on Sunday, just as he has in each of the Galaxy's first three playoff games.
Should that be the case, DeLaGarza will see plenty of battles against Calen Carr and Brian Ching. While it seems more likely that he'll be matched up with Carr due to the Dynamo forward's pace, DeLaGarza is also prepared to go up against the bruising Ching.
"Just getting a body on him," said DeLaGarza of his approach to marking Ching. "When balls are getting crossed in, just get a body on him, knock him off balance. Don't let him get a clean header, because he's clearly one of the best finishers in this league, especially with his head."
No matter who he faces off against, DeLaGarza is ready for the challenge and he's eager to add an MLS championship to a young career that already includes an NCAA title and MLS Supporters Shield.
"I said it yesterday, this is probably the biggest game of my soccer career," said DeLaGarza. "I've played in some big games, some NCAA championships, but this is that next step above that and it's exciting and I'm looking forward to it."
If Los Angeles wins the MLS Cup on Sunday, it is unlikely that DeLaGarza will get much of the limelight, not when he plays on a team that includes internationally-known players such as Beckham, Keane and Donovan.
That's okay though, because DeLaGarza is quietly enjoying the best season of his young career on a Galaxy team that he is a vital part of.