A.J. DeLaGarza and his Los Angeles Galaxy team-mates learned a lesson last week. “We created a ton of scoring chances, but we wasted too many of them,” the American defender told FIFA.com about the 2-1 loss to Monterrey of Mexico in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semi-final. “At this level, if you don’t take your chances you can be sure the other team will take theirs.”
Were it not for DeLaGarza, in fact, LA wouldn’t have taken any of their chances in the first leg. The 25-year-old defender, versatile and willing to push forward into attack, flicked home with his heel from close range to give the reigning MLS champions a lead at the half-hour mark.
It was a lead they failed protect, despite numerous scoring chances for the likes of Mike Magee and Robbie Keane. “We just didn’t put them away,” added DeLaGarza, taunted by his memories of the game. Instead of heading to Monterrey with a cushion, they now must face the swirling, buzzing Estadio Tecnologico needing a victory, after a pair of Monterrey goals in the final ten minutes – from Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris – turned the tie on its ear. “It’s crucial to defend properly for the whole 90 minutes,” added the young DeLaGarza, who hopes to fulfil what he calls his “boyhood dream” by earning a first bona fide cap for Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA national team this year. He has already been called in to train with the Stars and Stripes on two occasions.
A simple plan
According to DeLaGarza, who joined the Galaxy in 2009 and was crucial in last year’s title-winning campaign, the formula is simple: “take your chances, and don’t give away cheap ones at the other end.” Unfortunately, life’s big lessons are often all too clear when it’s a little too late to help.
“We’ve got nothing to lose at this point,” he said with the calm and confidence of a player on the rise, with his best days ahead of him. He is soothed by the fact that LA have been in this position before - in a hole in hostile territory. In the first round of last season’s MLS play-offs, he and his Galaxy were down 1-0 after the home leg of their series with Californian neighbours San Jose Earthquakes. “San Jose isn’t an easy place to play, but we got it done [with a 3-1 win], so we know what to do. We need to do it again now.
We’re the defending MLS champions and we’ve won MLS Cup two times in the last three years. We’re not the kind of team to just fold up.
“We’re no slouches,” he added, bristling at the suggestion that a win on the road in hostile Mexican territory, against defending champions of CONCACAF Monterrey, might be a step too far. “We’re the defending MLS champions and we’ve won MLS Cup two times in the last three years. We’re not the kind of team to just fold up.”
Another reason for confidence is the return of Landon Donovan – to the pitch, if not yet to his peak form or fitness. The top all-time American scorer and LA Galaxy talisman returned from a multi-month sabbatical, in which he dealt with mental and physical exhaustion and considered retirement, in the first leg against Monterrey.
Return of an American icon
“His skill is incredible,” DeLaGarza said about Donovan, an icon of the American scene. “He’s really important to us and he’s played in a few games now. We just need him to get back to where he can play for a full 90 minutes and get his fitness up.”
For DeLaGarza, who would consider playing for the tiny Pacific island of Guam, where he has roots on his father’s side, should his USA national team dreams not pan out, the secret of success is basic. There is no magic formula, and he refuses to use the fact that the MLS season is still in its early stages as an excuse. “Sure, the season’s young, but most of this team has been playing together for two, three years now,” he said of a Galaxy team that lost David Beckham to PSG in the close season. “We just need to keep from making the mistakes we did last week. We need to score early, keep Monterrey off the board and battle the way we know how, for the whole 90 minutes.”
Careful not to look past Monterrey, DeLaGarza concludes the conversation in a hopeful tone. “The Club World Cup is definitely on our to-do list,” he said, speaking of the berth the CONCACAF champions would get in the annual global showpiece. “We want badly to be the first American team to get there, and to test ourselves against the best. We want to take that next step.”
As the Galaxy defender makes sufficiently clear, the next step only comes by following simple principles. “We have what it takes to get the job done,” he concluded. “We just need to remember the lessons from the first leg.”