CARSON -- Omar Gonzalez is back on the training field, doing pretty much everything everybody else is doing, and that might be the best news the Galaxy has had since David Beckham decided to stick around.
Gonzalez, Major League Soccer's 2011 Defender of the Year, was sidelined after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee back in January during his first practice session of a short-term loan with German club FC Nuremberg. He now is targeting the end of this month or a little later for his return to the real games, but he found himself in a game situation for the first time Monday morning.
Gonzalez, the 6-foot-5 Texan whose presence on the back was crucial during the Galaxy's MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield title campaigns last year, played all of a 45-minute scrimmage against the Galaxy's U-17/18 Academy side.
It didn't mean a whole lot, except to Gonzalez.
“Today was just to see how I am and how my fitness is coming along,” he said after the first team, largely a group of reserves, claimed a 3-1 victory on L.A.'s training field at Home Depot Center. “I got a little bit tired towards the end, and we’re playing against our Academy, so I didn’t have to get up for a lot of headers or do a lot of defending. So for the most part, I think I did well. But I wasn’t really tested.
“All in all, I'd say it was a pretty good day.”
Gonzalez, 23, was hurt Jan. 5 in Turkey when he knocked knees with German-born American defender Timmy Chandler and underwent surgery eight days later in Santa Monica.
“The knee feels great,” he said. “Some spots are a little tender, but I think it's still the overall healing process going on. Once I'm out there, I don’t have any restrictions. I just get after it and get into tackles. There’s really nothing else stopping me other than making sure that we hit close to the six-, seven-month mark and making sure that it’s fully healed.”
He's been training nearly full speed for about 2½ weeks, and the limitations were gone last week ... not that teammates are willing to test him too strenuously.
“I know that they haven't been that hard at me in practice,” Gonzalez said. “I can sense that they're a bit hesitant to come in hard, which is great for me.
“When I'm ready and they're ready, then we can get after it.”
Gonzalez has been cautious since returning to training.
“If there was a situation where I could have gotten into tackles the first couple of days, I didn't do it,” he said. “I just sat back and let [the play in front or me] happen ... waited for the right time when I felt comfortable.
“I had one scare last week when Clarence [Seedorf, a Dutch star who trained with the Galaxy] was here. He took a shot and I went to block it, and I twisted my foot, twisted my knee. But that was actually a good little scare because it actually made me feel like my knee is good, my knee is ready, and the next day I came out and I had a great day.”
Gonzalez says his timetable to be activated from the disabled list is “a moving target.” “Hopefully at the end of this month or maybe next month is my goal. But you never know. Maybe I'll surprise you guys.”
Head coach Bruce Arena cautioned against reading too much into Monday's scrimmage.
“Just practice today,” he said. “I wouldn't make a whole lot out of it.”
Captain Landon Donovan said Gonzalez looked pretty good.
“I think the last thing you want to do is wait for a guy six months and then rush him [back in] one or two weeks,” Donovan said. “I know our guys will handle it in the right way, so you don't push a guy back too soon and then something else happens.”
“Omar's getting there. We're kind of taking it a day at a time,” the coach said. “We don't want to rush it too early, but he's getting to a point now where he can be considered in the near future to be on our roster.”
The Galaxy (6-9-2 after winning three of their last four games) sure could use him. Gonzalez was the MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009 and a Best XI defender in 2010. He took huge strides forward last year, anchoring a best-in-MLS defense that posted 17 shutouts and gave up just 28 goals in a 19-5-10 league campaign and had 22 shutouts in 46 games across all competitions. He was in his first U.S. national team camp in a year when the Nuremberg loan deal was finalized.
This year L.A. has given up 27 league goals in a half-season and shut out just two opponents in 20 games total.
Arena has paired A.J. DeLaGarza, Gonzalez's partner in the middle (and former roommate at the University of Maryland), with a series of replacements -- Andrew Boyens, rookie Tommy Meyer, natural midfielder Dan Keat and David Junior Lopes, who arrived in an April trade from Chivas USA and has been steadiest of the quartet.
The consensus away from the team is that Gonzalez's absence has been the root of much of the Galaxy's struggles. He doesn't necessarily agree.
“I'd say coming off a championship year, a lot of teams don't come out as strong; you see that in every single sport,” he said. “I think I [played] a major role in winning the championship last year, but a lot of guys [did]. A ton of guys. For everyone to say I'm part of the reason we're losing ... I'd say that's maybe a little bit, but there are other things going on, and for the most part it's just been a rough start to the year.
“I think everything's moving forward and everyone's starting to click at the right time. We've got to start clicking now. We've got to win games.”