While watching the Los Angeles Galaxy outclass the New York Red Bulls Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how efficient the LA defense was performing against one of the more possession oriented teams in MLS. With Josh Saunders doing his best all-star goalkeeper impression, the Galaxy back four of Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, and Todd Dunivant blended together to play as fine a defensive game as you will see in these playoffs. Even after the Red Bulls made a series of halftime adjustments and came out blazing in the second stanza, LA handled the onslaught with aplomb and deservedly left Red Bull Arena with a valuable 1-0 road win in the first leg of their quarterfinal series.
At some point during the first half, after the Galaxy back line again thwarted a Red Bull attack, I tweeted that perhaps I had shortchanged LA in my MLS Best XI selections made at the conclusion of the regular season. While I did honor Gonzalez and Dunivant in that elite team, DeLaGarza was for me the defensive MVP of the game that was unfolding in front of me. My possibly unconscious bias toward towering and physical centerbacks probably factored in to my neglecting to even consider DeLaGarza for league Best XI accolades, but I was left thoroughly impressed by the third year player out of Maryland.
(For the record, I chose Jamison Olave of Real Salt Lake and Jan Gunnar Solli of the New York Red Bulls as my other two defenders. Turned out to be quite an auspicious weekend for both players, as Olave had to leave the match early against Seattle with a leg injury, while Solli, courtesy of a red card earned in the wild-card play-in round, was suspended for the match against LA and resorted to spending his free time playing DJ during halftime festivities at Red Bull Arena. Both Olave and Solli are expected to be back for the second legs of their respective series in their regular playing capacity, though I wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more from Solli on the turntable — guest DJ at the Commissioner’s Party during MLS Cup Final weekend perhaps?)
Still, for me, the captain of the Galax defense is the big man in the middle: Omar Gonzalez. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t pick up his first MLS Defender of the Year award later this November — one which may very well be the first of many over his career should he elect to stay in MLS past his original rookie contract. And so, I was intrigued by a tidbit of information put out on Twitter by Sports Illustrated writer and sometime-Galaxy insider Grant Wahl about Gonzalez.
GrantWahl — Bruce Arena told me he wasn't planning to draft Omar González in '09, but the guy he wanted more got taken. Worked out pretty well for LA.
A future MLS all-star caliber defender, and arguably the greatest American coach ever (Sigi Schmid can’t be too far behind), one with an exceptional eye for talent, drafted him as an afterthought? I quickly thought back to the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, and remembered that the Galaxy had the third overall pick that year. With two Supporters Shields in the last two seasons, it might seem hard to believe that the Galaxy once finished tied for the worst record in the league back in 2008 with the expansion San Jose Earthquakes. But, they did, and in 2009 they welcomed aboard Maryland Terrapin teammates Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza as rookies.
Only two players were selected ahead of Gonzalez in 2009: Steve Zakuani to the expansion Seattle Sounders and Sam Cronin to Toronto FC. I replied to Grant that his comment on Arena must have implied that the Galaxy were exceptionally high on the defensive midfielder. I excluded Zakuani as the possible object of Arena’s desire given that the winger was a consensus #1 pick in every mock draft out there, and the LA coach could not have believed he would have fallen to him at #3. Not a huge leap of inductive reasoning, but Cronin must have been the target that Arena coveted that January day.
GrantWahl — @robertjonas Had to be either Cronin or Zakuani--though most would have suspected Zakuani going 1st ahead of time.
So by default, one of the most impressive young defenders to enter the league in the last half-dozen years, Omar Gonzalez, reluctantly fell into the hands of coach Arena, and now his team is sitting atop of the MLS summit a few scant seasons later. Wow, that must be a crying shame for all those Galaxy fans that suffered through the lean year of 2008. Meanwhile, Sam Cronin, selected by Toronto FC, became a fixture in the starting line-up in 2009, but was shipped to San Jose early in the 2010 season when the Reds undertook their umpteenth roster reimagining since joining MLS only three years before.
There was a touch of irony in having Cronin join the Earthquakes. After all, the second overall 2009 MLS SuperDraft selection that TFC used to get the Wake Forest product (as well as a duffel bag filled with Don Garber funny-money, I mean "allocation money") was acquired from San Jose the year prior in a deal that gave the Earthquakes the contract rights to Ronnie O’Brien. O’Brien lasted only one season with San Jose, even though he quickly became a fan favorite at Buck Shaw Stadium, and subsequently retired to become a country club golf pro when he was not picked up by any of the other MLS teams. By the spring of 2010, TFC coach Preki swept Cronin out of Toronto in a complete housecleaning of his roster, and the midfielder was shipped to San Jose for allocation money (the San Jose front office must have a Don Garber funny-money printing press somewhere in the building basement).
While it took over a year for the circle to be completed, the Earthquakes finally welcomed the second overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft to San Jose. Through the 15 month delay and the two installments of allocation money sent north of the border, Cronin became a fixture in the Quakes central midfield and has enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular two seasons in blue-and-black.
The coda to this story, one that has swept Cronin’s name out of the limelight and centered the focus directly on Gonzalez, is that for all of the Galaxy defender’s accomplishments since turning professional, he has yet to feature for the U.S. Men’s National Team. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has continued the U.S. Soccer love affair with Tim Ream in his short tenure at the top, continuing to select the New York Red Bulls defender at the expense of Gonzalez. Klinsmann’s predecessor Bob Bradley did the same over the past few years, while actually giving Cronin a few looks — and games — for the national team.
The player that Grant Wahl suggests Bruce Arena was after all along in 2009, Sam Cronin, played in that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup for the U.S. and has been subsequently invited to various national team camps over the past couple years. Meanwhile, Arena’s afterthought pick Omar Gonzalez continues to impress, and hopefully is only biding his time before he gets a chance to don the U.S.A. jersey. Continue to put in performances like he did Sunday against the New York Red Bulls, and Gonzalez should not have to wait very long to get the call from Klinsmann.