By Ivan Yeo
As the second half of the match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo approached, AJ DeLaGarza ran onto the pitch to a familiar side of the field. Just one problem, the side of the field where he approached, the Galaxy side of the field, was no longer his side.
“I kinda played it off well,” DeLaGarza said laughing.
Saturday’s match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo was another opportunity for the Galaxy fans to thank a former Galaxy player for his services while wearing the LA kit. A.J. DeLaGarza, who had established himself as a vital piece on the LA Backline for eight seasons, played his first game at StubHub Center since being traded from LA in the offseason.
“It’s good to be back and be in familiar territory,” DeLaGarza said. “This is the first time the fans have seen me since last year … kind of closure for them and myself.”
DeLaGarza was drafted in the second round of the 2009 MLS super draft (19th overall) out of the University of Maryland. DeLaGarza joined his college teammate Omar Gonzalez, who had been drafted fourth overall earlier. Gonzalez had been expected to contribute to a Galaxy backline that the year before had been one of the worst in the league, surrendering a league-high 61 goals. Little did anyone know that DeLaGarza would join his fellow Terrapin in establishing a cornerstone on the Galaxy backline for the next six seasons.
DeLaGarza started his rookie season as a Left Back, but when Sean Franklin, back then the team’s starting right back suffered a knee injury in a game against the Columbus Crew in May of that year, then-head coach Bruce Arena inserted DeLaGarza into the RB spot and DeLaGarza soon established himself at the position, starting every game there until he himself suffered a knee injury in a match against FC Dallas in September, forcing him to miss some time. DeLaGarza did start at left back for the Galaxy in the 2009 MLS Cup final in Seattle.
DeLaGarza started the season rotating between the outside back spots, but Arena soon decided to try something different. Arena started AJ at Center Back, which wasn’t that crazy of an idea, DeLaGarza played as a CB in college and his familiarity with Gonzalez at Maryland made for an easy transition. What DeLaGarza lacked in height at the position (DeLaGarza is 5-9), me made up for with his positioning and pace.
With DeLaGarza and Gonzalez occupying the middle, Franklin at the right back spot and veteran Todd Dunivant at left back, the Galaxy finally had the defense to compliment its star-studded offense. Everything finally came together in 2011, as the Galaxy won the second of back-to-back supporters shields, advance out of group play in the CONCACAF Champions League, did not lose a single match at home in any competitions, but most important of all, it finally won that elusive MLS Cup on a rainy Sunday evening at home, back then the Home Depot Center, as they defeated Houston (ironically) 1-0 to win the title, the first of the David Beckham era.
2014 was an emotional time for AJ, as his newborn son Luca passed away on September 4, only a week after he had been born. Luca died of Hypoplastic Left Hear Syndrome. In the Galaxy’s September 6 match against Colorado, AJ’s teammates paid tribute by wearing armbands that read “Luca” and in the 20th minute, the fans stood on their feet to pay tribute. DeLaGarza was on the field when the Galaxy won the MLS Cup that year and he described his emotions as he celebrated his third MLS championship.
“I’ve said it before, this is my best year on the field, and my worst year off the field personally,” DeLaGarza said. “At the end of the game, you guys saw I just kind of laid there and sobbed a little bit. Obviously, I wish my son was here, so that was all I thought about.”
DeLaGarza played two more years in LA, going in and out of the lineup as he himself struggled with injuries. Still, Galaxy fans were shocked to learn on January 15 that he had been traded to Houston for $125,000 in Allocation money plus and additional $50,000 in TAM money.
“It’s not (upsetting),” DeLaGarza said about the trade to Houston. “My wife (Megan) and I are happy in Houston. We’re enjoying it and embracing it. For me it was time for a change. We’re happy.”
Despite this being the first time at StubHub since the trade, DeLaGarza said it was business as usual as far as match preparation went.
“I just said hello out on the field. That was it,” DeLaGarza said. ““It’s a little bit weird, but I’ve been here eight years. I felt comfortable.”
Despite having to go to the visitor’s locker room now whenever he goes to StubHub, DeLaGarza says he will always remember the good times (and there were a lot of them) in his eight seasons with the Galaxy.
“Not a part of this team, but I’ll always be a part of Galaxy and the history, and you know the fans are always a part of my life,” DeLaGarza said.