Omar Gonzalez wasn't supposed to be back in the Galaxy lineup until September, maybe August. Maybe, best-case scenario, late July.
So his rapid-fire move from full training (with teammates not fully challenging him) to 45 mostly do-nothing minutes against the club's Academy players to activation from the MLS Disabled List to the Fourth of July starting lineup was somewhat of a surprise.
There had been hints: He was said to be advancing rapidly in his rehabilitation from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he sustained in January, and AEG President Tim Leiweke teased at an event in mid-March that the reigning MLS Defender of the Year would be back sooner than expected.
Gonzalez got 45 solid minutes in Wednesday's loss against Philadelphia and could be back in the starting XI for Saturday afternoon's game at Chicago, a pivotal clash after back-to-back losses following that eye-opening three-game winning streak.
The Fire (8-5-4), who won three in a row and then claimed a point at Houston, are among Major League Soccer's swiftest and most talented attacking sides, and theirs is a challenge Gonzalez might not yet be ready for.
He didn't have a whole lot to do in his first-half appearance against Philadelphia, so his time was more about getting reacquainted to the game than taking command of a backline that has missed his dearly.
“It was kind of nice [not to be tested],” an ebullient Gonzalez said after the game. “[Philadelphia] decided to sit back a little bit and just kind of go for the counterattack, and we had everything locked down pretty good.”
He said could've played “like 10 more minutes, but we decided to stick to the plan ... you don't want to play too many minutes. This is sort of a kind of progression, so this game I got 45 minutes. Maybe next game I get 60 and you go from there.”
Gonzalez is the most talented and one of the biggest (at 6 feet 5), most physical and, certainly last year, most savvy center backs in MLS, and L.A. has struggled defensively without him. There are other processes at work there, but his absence -- and the impact of that absence on confidence -- has been the defining element of a poor first half to the season.
Back in March, Leiweke predicted it would be only three months before Gonzalez was back on the field. It was considered little more than talk -- Gonzalez at the time said his target remained September -- but the Galaxy's top official was only a few weeks off.
“What people have to remember here is it's not like Omar's gone for the whole year ...,” Leiweke said. “Those who think he's gone for the full year are sadly mistaken. This kid will be back, he'll be back soon, and when he does get back, it will change our team.”
He's not quite ready to be what he was. He played just those 45 minutes Monday, against the U-17/18 Academy team, and could have used a couple of Reserve League matches to prepare, but the schedule didn't cooperate.
“Even at less than 100 percent. he still helps us, and he’s going to help us a lot going forward,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “He’s still going to need a lot of time to get going. This [appearance] doesn’t mean he’s fully there yet, but he made good progress.”
Will he play against the Fire? Nothing official either way.
NO BECKHAM AGAIN: Fans in Chicago are moaning after David Beckham was suspended an additional match for his actions near the end and following last weekend's loss at San Jose, forcing him to miss the game at the Fire for the fourth straight year. It's not an issue for the Fire players.
“We have a disciplinary committee, and they deal with all those matters,” midfielder Logan Pause told the club's website. “As players, you just move on with it. I’m sure fans are going to be disappointed that he won’t be here, but [the Galaxy is] still a dangerous team without him on the field.”
WORTH NOTING: MLS's All-Star First XI, based on fan balloting, will be unveiled on ESPN at halftime. L.A.'s best bets are Beckham and Donovan, who were 1-2 in online voting last weekend, just before polls closed. Robbie Keane was third among forwards, behind San Jose's Chris Wondolowski and New York's Thierry Henry. The All-Star Game, against European champion Chelsea, is July 25 in Chester, Pa. ... The Galaxy is 1-5-1 against Eastern Conference opposition, 0-2-1 on the road. They are 2-5-1 on the road in MLS games, with wins at Colorado and Real Salt Lake, and 2-6-2 away in all competitions. The Fire are 5-1-2 at home, the lone loss to Seattle in April. ... The Galaxy leads the all-time MLS regular-season series, 17-15-14 (one of those losses in a shootout), but in all competitions the tally is 20-20-15 (with two shootout losses). Chicago is 9-8-1 at home in MLS games (12-8-2 overall) and 4-2-1 at Toyota Park, which opened in 2006. L.A. won the meetings in 2009 and 2011 and it was a tie in 2010. ... Juninho will be suspended with his next yellow card.
Head coach: Frank Klopas
Key players: F Dominic Oduro, F/M Patrick Nyarko, M Marco Pappa, M Alex, M Pavel Pardo, D Arne Friedrich, F Chris Rolfe, D Gonzalo Segares, M Logan Pause, F/M Sebastian Grazzini, G Sean Johnson.
Local guys: F Orr Barouch (Woodland Hills), M Daniel Paladini (Van Nuys/Cal State Northridge).
Update: The Fire (8-5-4) are one of MLS's most dynamic sides, with a front four -- Oduro, Nyarko, Pappa and Grazzini -- that rivals the best in the league, and probably eclipses them for speed and style. Add returning star Chris Rolfe, back after three years in Denmark, and Brazilian newcomer Alex, impressive in two appearance off the bench, and this team appears to be going somewhere after missing the playoffs the past two years. If they all stick around, that is. Grazzini's option for the rest of the year was just exercised, but he told media in Chicago on Friday that he was headed home to Argentina indefinitely to deal with a personal matter. And there's growing interest in Pappa overseas. Chicago's next victory matches their win totals the past two seasons. Johnson has been superb in the nets in Chicago's four-game unbeaten spell, which includes wins over New York and Sporting Kansas City and a 0-0 draw Tuesday at Houston.
Out: D Andrew Boyens (sports hernia), F Edson Buddle (right knee surgery), M Dan Keat (right knee surgery), D Leonardo (right knee inflammation).
Questionable: D Omar Gonzalez (left ACL tear), M Kyle Nakazawa (back spasms), F Pat Noonan (right quad strain).
Out: D Cory Gibbs (right meniscus surgery, M Steven Kinney (right Achilles' tendinitis).
Toyota Park (Bridgeview, Ill.), noon PT
Referee: Jair Marrufo
TV: ESPN (English) and ESPN Deportes (Spanish)
Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKW-AM/1330, Spanish)