MLS title seems like old times for two ex-Terps

L.A. Galaxy duo also won NCAA crown

CARSON, Calif. — Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza had seen this wonderful story before.

Less than three years after claiming an NCAA College Cup title with the Maryland Terrapins, the defenders Sunday again found themselves on the winning side of a championship team — this time manning the back line for a Los Angeles Galaxy side that sealed a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo and celebrated the franchise’s third MLS Cup title.

As the final whistle blew at Home Depot Center, there was no doubt in DeLaGarza’s mind who he would first embrace: his center back partner for the better part of six years with the Galaxy and Terrapins.

“It’s crazy,” DeLaGarza said. “It’s pretty special to do that with someone in the college and professional levels.”

After forming one of the nation’s elite central defensive partnerships for three years at Maryland, a tenure that ended with the Terrapins defeating North Carolina 1-0 in the 2008 College Cup final in Frisco, Texas, DeLaGarza and Gonzalez were taken by Los Angeles in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.

The 6-foot-5 Gonzalez was a first-round pick who graded as a can’t-miss talent and hasn’t disappointed. He won Rookie of the Year in 2009 and Defender of the Year this season while developing into as dominating an aerial presence as MLS has to offer.

DeLaGarza, on the other hand, flew more under the radar, slipping to the second round largely because of his undersized 5-foot-9, 145-pound frame. But it wasn’t long before the Bryans Road, Md., native proved his skeptics wrong, earning a regular starting slot alongside Gonzalez by the end of his second season.

“Those guys have been playing together now for years,” Galaxy right back Sean Franklin said. “To have that chemistry, it’s huge for the team.”

Once injuries to Brazilian center back Leonardo and veteran Gregg Berhalter left Los Angeles short-handed on defense early in this campaign, DeLaGarza, 24, retained his place in the first 11, starting 30 games for a Galaxy back line that allowed a league-low 28 goals in 34 matches.

Although he mostly manned the middle with the 23-year-old Gonzalez, DeLaGarza used his pace and versatility to also fill in at both fullback positions when called upon by coach Bruce Arena.

“Ever since I knew A.J., he’s been a very reliable player,” Gonzalez said. “Wherever the coach needs him to play, he can play there. You guys have seen that all year, playing left back, right back, center back. He’s just a great player, and you can always count on him playing a great game and giving his best.”

Los Angeles stars David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan may have earned the headlines Sunday for combining on the match’s lone goal, a 72nd-minute Donovan tally, but Gonzalez and DeLaGarza anchored a Galaxy defense that secured the shutout win — just as they did in the College Cup final against North Carolina.

While the Dynamo offered the forward partnership of bruiser Brian Ching and speedster Calen Carr that had developed a dangerous rapport in playoff games prior, neither player found much room to operate as the Gonzalez-DeLaGarza partnership efficiently snuffed out Houston’s few forays forward.

“You know [Gonzalez] is going to win everything in the air,” DeLaGarza said. “And I cover behind him if anything gets loose. They had a big forward and a fast forward, and we had a big back and a somewhat fast back.”

It’s a balanced combination that has worked for years — first before modest crowds at College Park’s cozy Ludwig Field, and now before tens of thousands on a decorated club that includes former England national team captain Beckham, current Ireland skipper Keane, and Donovan, the United States’ all-time leading scorer.

“Everyone talks about Omar being huge and A.J. being small, but it doesn’t matter — A.J. plays big,” Franklin said. “I’m just thankful to have those guys in my back line.”

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