CARSON -- Things sure will be different this season for A.J. DeLaGarza, whose fortunes have been welded to those of Omar Gonzalez, his former teammate -- and roommate -- at the University of Maryland.
Now Gonzalez, the best defender in Major League Soccer last season, is out for most if not all of the upcoming campaign after shredding the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Jan. 5 in his first training session of a loan deal to Germany's FC Nuremberg.
DeLaGarza, Gonzalez's primary partner in the middle as the Galaxy rode its defense to MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield triumphs, will need to contribute more this year than he has in his first three professional seasons.
“I've played with Omar the last six years,” said DeLaGarza, who is in camp with the U.S. national team for the second straight January, reward for an outstanding 2011 performance on L.A.'s backline. “Not to have him there is kind of ... you know ... not that depressing, but you want him out there. He's a guy who's really in his prime right now, and for him to go through the injury he's going through, I just feel bad for him.
“Not for the club, because we have guys who can step in, but just for him, who is really starting to peak in his career. It's sad for him.”
Gonzalez and DeLaGarza have been a most complementary tandem since coming to L.A. in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5 Texan, was MLS Rookie of the Year that first season, an MLS Best XI pick as a sophomore and the league's Defender of the Year last year. Marylander DeLaGarza, eight inches shorter but with good speed and technical skill, is L.A.'s most versatile defender, capable of playing well in all four slots.
Injuries have forced him into the middle, but it appeared he might get to take charge at right back, his natural position, until Gonzalez went down.
“I'm not sure about that now,” DeLaGarza said. “With Omar out, we'll see what happens. We'll see if we have anyone who can step in here, and hopefully I can play wider and help out wherever I can. ... I can play anywhere, so wherever the team needs me, I'll be there.”
He's preparing for the season with three-a-days under U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has used him in the middle and, on Tuesday, at right back in scrimmages against the U.S. under-23 team at Home Depot Center.
DeLaGarza didn't appear in last year's game against Chile following Bob Bradley's final January camp but hopes to make his international debut Saturday against Venezuela in Glendale, Ariz. The U.S. then heads to Panama for a friendly a week from Wednesday. He's got bigger dreams, of course.
“You have three weeks [in this camp] to kind of prove yourself, get your name in the coaches' minds for future camps,” he said. “Hopefully, you get a call-in for bigger things and, hopefully, a World Cup in two and half years.”
DeLaGarza hopes to use the U.S. camp as a springboard toward a bigger role with the Galaxy, who open their preseason camp Saturday. Gonzalez' absence will leave a massive hole.
Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens, who is with the U-23s, is confident in his teammate.
“Omar's been one of our best players, if not the best, the last few years. He's a rock back there,” Stephens said. “But we'll have guys who will step up. ... A.J.'s proved in the last two years that he's ready. He'll definitely have to take on a leadership role this year.”
DeLaGarza knows it.
“I've got to step up, I've got to take a bigger role,” he said. “Not only myself, but all the defenders: Sean [Franklin] and Todd [Dunivant] and Frankie [Hejduk] and B.J. [Bryan Jordan]. All of us really have to step up. We've got big shoes to full, [for a] guy who's lethal for us offensively and a rock for us defensively. We've all got to step up.”
WORTH NOTING: The score Tuesday was 1-1. Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi scored for the national team, and Philadelphia's Jack McInerney netted the U-23s' goal. ... Stephens played at left back in the second half for the U-23s. ... Chivas USA's Jorge Villafaña is getting a look at left back by U-23 coach Caleb Porter, who is taking the team to Costa Rica for two friendlies. ... New York forward Juan Agudelo, who suffered a right-ankle injury in Friday's scrimmage, is in a walking boot and isn't expected to play against Venezuela or Panama. ... Club Tijuana's Joe Corona, who is with the U-23s, on Monday was honored as the best young player at the Mexican Primera Division's awards dinner. ... Among those watching Tuesday's game were UCLA All-American Chandler Hoffman, who is headed to camp next week with Philadelphia, Chivas USA defender James Riley, Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo, University of Redlands coach (and former Galaxy assistant coach) Ralph Perez and former U.S. national-teamer Brian Quinn. ... UCLA and Cal coaches were at Friday's meeting, a 4-0 national team win, and Michigan State's coaching staff has been watching both teams' training sessions the past week.