By Steven Goff
Saturday, November 21, 2009
SEATTLE -- At this time last fall, Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza were primed for the NCAA soccer tournament, for matches against the likes of George Mason, Cal and Creighton in what would culminate in Maryland's second national title in four years.
A few thousands fans gathered at multi-sport Ludwig Field for the early-round games, and with no TV coverage until the semifinals, out-of-town friends and family monitored computer screens for periodic updates. College soccer was a largely discreet enterprise for the physically contrasting duo stationed in the heart of the Terrapins' back line: Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound Texan, alongside the 5-9, 145-pound DeLaGarza, the pride of Lackey High in southern Maryland.
Flash forward to this weekend in Seattle, site of the MLS Cup on Sunday evening between Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake: Gonzalez and DeLaGarza are still wearing identical colors, except the Galaxy's blue and yellow substitutes for Maryland's red and black.
Transportation is via private jet and police escort. The Qwest Field audience should surpass 40,000. Teammates aren't cramming for exams; they are shining the MLS most valuable player trophy (Landon Donovan), compiling international endorsements (David Beckham) and reminiscing about World Cups past (several players as well as the head coach and his assistant).
"To go from playing for a national championship to playing for the [MLS] championship in our rookie year, it's been pretty amazing," said Gonzalez, DeLaGarza's roommate in College Park and housemate near the Galaxy's Home Depot Center. "You dream about playing for a championship, and now we're doing it again."
Gonzalez, who left school with a year of eligibility remaining and was the third overall pick in last winter's draft, was named MLS's top rookie last week after helping the Galaxy reduce by half the number of goals conceded compared to the previous season. He started every match in the regular season and playoffs, sitting out just 28 of 3,000 minutes.
"From the beginning, we decided we were going to stick with Omar, in good times and bad," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. "He has had a steady climb. Omar and A.J. have been fabulous, and you can see they come from a quality program [at Maryland]. They have a lot of respect for their coaches and teammates, and when you combine that with the ability they brought, there was a chance they were going to be pretty good."
DeLaGarza, a second-round selection (19th overall) who played four years at Maryland, made 21 starts in 22 regular season appearances, and with Todd Dunivant unavailable for the Western Conference final against the Houston Dynamo last weekend because of illness, played 120 minutes in the 2-0 overtime victory. Too slight to play a rough-and-tumble central role at the pro level, DeLaGarza has manned both outside positions on the back line.
Gonzalez will start again Sunday while DeLaGarza likely will be a reserve.
When they are on the field together, "I really don't need to say anything to him," Gonzalez said. "I always know he's in the right place."
With DeLaGarza shifted to the flanks, Gonzalez, 21, has played in the middle with Gregg Berhalter, 36, who has mentored his rookie partner.
"Omar has really progressed, not just on the field but his attitude off the field and dedication to the game," said Berhalter, in his first season with the Galaxy after a prosperous career in Europe and with the U.S. national team. "He's been key to helping this defense [with] his physical presence -- he's immense -- and for a young guy, he listens well but also learns very quickly."
Gonzalez's size is suited for the pro game; the concern was whether he was quick enough -- physically and mentally -- to play at a higher level. He was exposed at times this season and will surely be tested Sunday by Robbie Findley, Real's sleek striker.
"He looks like he lumbers around, but he is a better athlete than most people think and he has improved his turning speed," Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski said. "He is also contributing over 90 minutes. He's more engaged."
Arena, the longtime coach at Virginia before leaving for MLS in 1996, was the one who informed Gonzalez that he had been named rookie of the year. "But first," Gonzalez said, laughing, "he had to give me a hard time about Virginia beating Maryland" in the ACC quarterfinals a day earlier.
Gonzalez and DeLaGarza are very much in the thoughts of their former coach and teammates, who, far from the spectacle of MLS Cup, will go about their business the same day at Penn State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"To see where they are now, it's a nice tribute to our program," Cirovski said. "Terrapin Nation is rooting for them."