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Wednesday, January 11, 2012
MLS DRAFT: Gonzalez replacement? Nah

By Scott French

Omar Gonzalez
The Galaxy will have to replace injured Omar Gonzalez's presence on the backline, but it likely won't be through the SuperDraft.

The Galaxy heads into the Thursday's MLS SuperDraft with real needs following Omar Gonzalez's potentially season-ending knee injury, but they're not going to find a replacement for the league's best center back in Kansas City.

Bruce Arena says as much, and he maintains Major League Soccer's reigning champ isn't looking to trade up to grab one of three or four top center backs available and likely to be gone by the time the 19th pick rolls around.

“I don't think we can safely draft a player that necessarily replaces Omar,” Arena, the Galaxy's head coach and general manager, told L.A.-based reporters as the MLS Player Combine concluded Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Obviously, we're aware of the fact we need to bolster our backline. But we're not going to be making up for the loss of Omar in the draft.”

Gonzalez, last season's MLS Defender of the Year, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last Thursday, in his first training session with FC Nuremberg after joining the German Bundesliga club on a short-term loan. He knocked knees with German-born U.S. national team right back Timmy Chandler, and just like that his plan for 2012 was gone.

Gonzalez, 23, had been called into the national team's January camp -- he pulled out to join Nuremberg's winter-break camp in Turkey -- and there was growing interest in his services in Europe. Nuremberg officials confirmed they hoped to bring in the 6-foot-5 Texan full-time in the summer transfer window.

Instead, Gonzalez will undergo surgery, tentatively planned for late this week or early next week, and spend the bulk of the year rehabilitating his knee and then building fitness.

Gonzalez didn't return to the U.S. until Sunday, and a Galaxy spokesman said he had been slated to visit Dr. Bert Mandelbaum's Santa Monica Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Research Foundation on Wednesday to determine the extent of the injury and damage to the meniscus and other ligaments. Head trainer Armando Rivas was returning Wednesday from the combine, and surgery will be scheduled once he has met with Mandelbaum.

“We were pretty certain [after hearing from Nuremberg] it would be an ACL. We need to get that confirmed,” Arena said. “Obviously, it's disappointing. It's more disappointing for Omar than for our team. This was going to be a nice opportunity for Omar, something he wanted to do, and we were happy to support him in it. It’s a shame because he’s a player who was coming into his prime.”

It generally takes six to nine months to recover from a torn ACL, and Arena said he hoped Gonzalez “can get back on the field” late in the season. Major League Soccer's season begins March 10 and the regular season concludes at the end of October.

Gonzalez's absence leaves a massive hole on the Galaxy backline, especially after veteran Gregg Berhalter, Gonzalez's mentor, retired and was hired as head coach at Swedish club Hammarby. Versatile A.J. DeLaGarza, Gonzalez's partner in the middle, had seemed destined to move to right back; Brazilian Leonardo, who started the first seven league games last season before tearing an ACL in mid-April, is still rehabbing his knee injury, and the Galaxy has not yet reached an agreement with Sao Paulo to extend his loan agreement for a third season.

Center backs of comparable quality in MLS aren't going to be available, and the best candidates in the draft -- Duke's Andrew Wenger, Connecticut's Andrew Jean-Baptiste, North Carolina's 6-foot-4 Matt Hedges, Louisville's Austin Berry and Indiana's Tommy Meyer -- can't step into Gonzalez's shoes.

Will a replacement be found outside the country? “Likely,” Arena said.

The Galaxy has two selections Thursday, at the end of both rounds, and Arena said the aim was to strengthen the roster.

“I think roster depth is probably the right word,” he said, “but you never know what can happen. ... We're picking 19th, and that simply means we will be reacting off the 18 picks ahead of us. It's really that simple.”

He said he thought the Galaxy was “a little thin at the end of our roster last year, and this year we want to strengthen that.”

Arena said the draft class was “maybe less players at the top of the draft than previously, but deeper than the last couple of years.” That ought to provide decent options at 19 and maybe 38, too, with some good players falling into next week's four-round supplemental draft.

In some of the more prominent mock drafts online, including three on the league's website, the Galaxy's 19th pick has included Berry, Notre Dame defender Aaron Maund, UCLA defensive midfielder Andy Rose, UC Santa Barbara playmaker Luis Silva, North Carolina midfielder Kirk Urso, Creighton forward Ethan Finlay and Paraguayan midfielder Aldo Paniagua. Silva and Finlay, in particular, figure to be gone by the time the Galaxy's on the clock.

Several other highly regarded players, including North Carolina midfielder Enzo Martinez and left backs Hunter Jumper from Virginia and Tyler Polak from Creighton, might be available. Martinez and Polak are Generation adidas signings, so they won't count against their club's salary cap nor roster size.