The Galaxy's A.J. DeLaGarza and the Timbers' Mike Fucito vie… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)
SEATTLE — For seven months A.J. DeLaGarza was the rock in the middle of an injury-riddled Galaxy defense, starting 30 of the team's first 31 games and going the full 90 minutes in all but one of them.
For the last seven weeks, however, DeLaGarza has been all but forgotten, a knee injury keeping him on the sidelines during the team's improbable run through the Major League Soccer playoffs. And that's left him with two wounds to heal — the obvious one to his left knee and another to his spirit, which has grown melancholic with each game he's missed.
"This has been probably the worst injury I've ever had," he says sadly. "I handle it all right at times. And sometimes you get down on yourself because you want to help the team."
DeLaGarza does that now primarily by cheerleading — and by working tirelessly to strengthen the ligaments he sprained in the first half of a late-September game in Colorado. He resumed running a week ago and has already progressed to some simple passing, lateral cutting and reaction drills.
"I try to do stuff at home to loosen it up as well," he says. "In the very beginning I was like, four weeks I'll be back. That was my mind-set. I guess I guessed wrong."
His goal now is considerably more modest: to be in uniform for the Dec. 1 MLS Cup final.
The Galaxy must qualify for that first, of course, something it can do Sunday by protecting its three-goal lead in the second leg of the Western Conference finals in Seattle. The two-game series is decided by total goals, meaning the Galaxy can lose Sunday's match by two scores and still advance to the MLS championship, giving DeLaGarza hope he'll be able to suit up one more time this season.
"I'll do whatever I have to do to help the team," DeLaGarza says. "Whether it's [as] a role player or getting into a match or starting."
DeLaGarza says his teammates have already contributed to his rehab by winning during his absence, making the injury a bit easier to take. Consider that repayment for DeLaGarza's performance earlier in the year because without his steady play the Galaxy would probably be watching the playoffs on TV.
"It always sucks having an injury. But at the same time it would be more pressure if we were losing," DeLaGarza says. "I'm just taking it day by day now. I'll get back when I get back. If I'm called up, then I'll be there."
The spectacular play of his replacement, rookie Tommy Meyer, has also made DeLaGarza's attempted comeback easier. Meyer started three of the team's first five regular-season games at center back in place of the injured Omar Gonzalez and was so overmatched he got just 75 more MLS minutes over the next six months.
Instead he played for the Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League, in the Gold Cup and in eight of the team's 10 Reserve League games, earning valuable experience.
And when DeLaGarza went down, Meyer stood up.
"I think I've just learned a lot from the beginning of the year," Meyer says. "And the games I've played since then, it's just been learning some stuff. I've just been more confident now."
Meyer was especially good in the Galaxy's last two games, a must-win match in San Jose and a 3-0 win over Seattle in the first leg of the conference finals.
"For a rookie to come in and play well, play in big games, all the credit to him for stepping up and filling in a big spot," says defender Sean Franklin, the only Galaxy player to appear in every regular-season game this season. "It's tough to come in and show well and earn a spot, and Tommy's earned the starting spot."
That isn't to say Franklin and the rest of the Galaxy don't miss DeLaGarza, which is why he traveled with the rest of the team to San Jose 10 days ago and why he flew to Seattle this weekend. And when the team went through its final pregame training session Saturday on the soggy artificial turf at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, DeLaGarza was right there with them, taking part in his second full practice since his injury.
Now if he can only suit up for one more game.
"They're winning right now and if all I can do is support them, I'm happy," he says. "What they've been able to do is tremendous. When this team wants to turn it on, I don't think any team can stop us."