Nov 4, 2011

National Team Calls for the Wrong L.A. Galaxy Center Back

Last night, the L.A. Galaxy dispatched Red Bull New York from the MLS playoffs in a pretty entertaining affair  at the Home Depot Center, winning the conference semi-final tie 3-1 on aggregate on the back of two strong performances by Mike Magee and yes David Beckham.

But this is not about Magee punishing his former club or Beckham playing well in potentially his final games for the Galaxy.  Nope, this post is about center backs and specifically about L.A. Galaxy's center back pairing of A.J. De La Garza and Omar Gonzalez.

U.S. Men's National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann should be looking at these center backs and be considering one of them for National Team inclusion.  While much of the U.S. fandom is calling for Omar Gonzalez to be considered for call up to the National Team, last night showed exactly why that should not be the case and why A.J. De La Garza is the Galaxy center back that should have a better claim to a call-up to Klinsmann's squad than Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is a fine MLS center back.  He is dominating in the air and at 6'5" he better be.  He is good at attacking set pieces and has scored a few goals in his career.  He defends set pieces well and is usually in the right position most of the time. But there are weaknesses in his game.  He is not the fastest of players, but then again, a lot of center backs are not quick.  He sometimes gets caught out of position at bad times and appears to have problems keeping his head in the game, particularly late in the.  Gonzalez may be a big man, and there are roles for big men,  but just being a big center back is not going to cut it on Klinsmann's squad.

But there is one glaring weakness that was on display last night and indeed in most games for L.A. this year which means it is not likely that he will get regular call-ups for the National Team outside maybe the January camp.  Simply put, Gonzalez cannot play like Klinsmann wants to play.

Klinsmann in looking to play a certain style of soccer; a possession oriented, ball movement style of play and right now Gonzalez can't play that way.  Last night, what did we see from Gonzalez?  A lot of blast the ball clear; searching, hopeful balls played over the midfield, hoping that Robbie Keane, Chad Barrett or later Adam Christman could get under them.  Sure there are times when you need to blast the ball in to Row Z of the stadium in order for your team to reorganize, but Gonzalez cannot play well with the ball at his feet and that is what Klinsmann wants out of all of his players.  Until Gonzalez can do that, he will be a USMNT B team player at best.  Klinsmann needs his center backs to be capable of collecting the ball at their feet, maintaining composure and passing out of the defensive third.  Twelve-year-olds can blast the ball down the field indiscriminately.  Professional and. most importantly, international caliber level players need to be able to dribble and pass out of the defensive third and not bypass the midfield.

But look at A. J. De La Garza.  He is not what we think of when you think of center backs.  He is not tall like Gonzalez or a mass of muscle like Oguchi Onyewu.  So because he is not a big man he doesn't try to muscle his way out of problems or rely on physical prowess to be a good defender.  De La Garza plays positions quite well, cutting off the through ball, reading the plays that develop in front of him, popping up at just the right time, in just the right place to snuff out an attack.  He has a bit more speed that Gonzalez.  It is a different role that Gonzalez and that is what makes them such a good pairing.

But time and again last night, De La Garza could do what Klinsmann is trying to develop in his team.  De La Garza would collect the ball, get composed with the ball at his feet and play the 20 yard pass into Beckham, Donovan or Magree and start an attack based on movement and possession, not attacks based on hope and a 50/50 ball.  He didn't do it every time he was on the ball, but you can see that De La Garza never looks panicked or worried.  He doesn't wilt under pressure and try to slam his way through.

Because De La Garza didn't and couldn't develop physical domination attributes of a "traditional" center back, he had to develop as a footballer.  So he has positioning, mental acuity and the ability to keep his composure.  Passing skills can be taught, but the ability to read a game cannot.  De La Garza has to learn to read the game because that is what he had to do.  De La Garza's ability to read an attack makes him a perfect back for starting an attack as well.  He can pick out the cutting pass that will open up an opposing midfield and allow his midfield to being the attack.

I think Gonzalez and De La Garza may be the best center back pairing in MLS, excepting maybe Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave.  They have gotten that way through years of experience playing together.  But when it comes to Jurgen Klinsmann's national team goals and style, De La Garza is a better center back.

Can De La Garza develop into an international level center back?  I don't know, but I do know this, he has more tools in his tool box to play the way Klinsmann wants that Omar Gonzalez.  Klinsmann should call De La Garza should get a cap before Gonzalez.

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