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Omar Gonzalez is star of Galaxy's defense

The 23-year-old is the youngest in MLS history to win Defender of the Year award and anchors a team that allowed a league-low 28 goals in 34 regular-season games and had a record-tying 17 shutouts.

November 10, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, left, heads the ball over Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil during the Galaxy's Western Conference championship victory Sunday. Gonzalez has played a leading role in helping the Galaxy reach the MLS Cup final.
Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, left, heads the ball over Real Salt Lake… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

When the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez was named Major League Soccer's rookie of the year two seasons ago, he got the news in a congratulatory phone call from Commissioner Don Garber.

When he won the league's defender-of-the-year award this week, he got the news in a phone call from Justin Pearson in the team's communications office.

"I don't think it's supposed to work that way," Gonzalez said after becoming, at 23, the youngest top defender in MLS history. "But that's the way it worked. I was a little worried that I wasn't going to win the award because I didn't get a call from the commissioner."

Perhaps the commissioner, like the rest of the league, had conceded the award to Gonzalez weeks earlier. One of the most physical central defenders in MLS, the 6-foot-8 Gonzalez anchored a Galaxy team that gave up a league-low 28 goals in 34 regular-season games, posting a record-tying 17 shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.82, the third-best mark in league history.

And it's that defensive stoutness, more than the offense provided by Landon Donovan and David Beckham, that helped the Galaxy finish with the league's best regular-season record en route to the MLS Cup final Nov. 20 at the Home Depot Center.

"Those guys sell the tickets," Gonzalez said of the team's top two midfielders who, with Gonzalez and fellow defender Todd Dunivant, were named to the MLS First IX on Thursday. "But as long as we are taking care of the defensive side, I don't think it really matters if we get a lot of articles written about our defense.

"As long as a team we're doing well, we're playing well, we're winning, were getting shutouts, that's all that matters."

Coach Bruce Arena calls it a balanced approach — albeit a balance that puts defense first, especially in the postseason.

"All teams that are successful are successful because they don't give up a lot of goals," Arena said. "You don't win big games, 3-2 or 5-3."

Nor is anyone likely to win the MLS Cup with a baseball-like score since the Galaxy and its opponent, the Eastern Conference champion Houston Dynamo, combined to score more than three goals in a game just twice in the regular season. And that plays into the Galaxy's hands.

"The back four have to do their job defensively. We're definitely not going to sit back," Gonzalez said of the final.

Once the MLS Cup is over, Gonzalez plans to wait for another call — this one from Juergen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. national team. Gonzalez appeared in two games under former U.S. coach Bob Bradley and now wants a chance to impress Klinsmann.

"That's been one of my dreams: to play for my national team and play in a World Cup," says Gonzalez, who also holds a Mexican passport as the son of immigrant parents. "It's been very disappointing not being called up, to be honest. That's where I want to be.

"Winning these sorts of accolades just puts more pressure on them to take a look at me and evaluate if I'm going to be good enough for their team. I'm just waiting for my time."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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