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GALAXY: Gonzalez takes the next step

Omar Gonzalez could be considered the Galaxy's MVP this season for his work at center back. AP Photo/Bret Hartman

CARSON -- Landon Donovan has scored 11 goals. David Beckham has assisted a dozen. Theirs are the names everyone knows, the guys who get all the attention -- and neither might be the Galaxy's MVP this season.

L.A.'s success in 2011 has been primarily about defense, and third-year center back Omar Gonzalez's spectacular play -- especially the past six weeks or so -- has made a deep imprint as the club continues its run toward a second successive Supporters' Shield as Major League Soccer's regular-season champion.

Gonzalez, MLS's Rookie of the Year in 2009 and a Best XI selection last year, has been a commanding presence during much of a four-month stretch in which L.A. has lost just once in 21 games heading into Friday night's Home Depot Center encounter with reigning MLS Cup champion Colorado.

“He's progressing. He's having a solid season,” said veteran center back Gregg Berhalter, a two-time World Cup selection who doubles as an assistant coach with the Galaxy and has been a mentor for Gonzalez. “I think this season more than ever he's doing a lot of the little things right that might go unnoticed, but are important for the team. ... He has kind of a picture of how he should play in his mind, and now he's starting to fine-tune it and correct the details.”

The 6-foot-5 Texan, always dominant in the air, has become a more complete defender, more nuanced, with greater positional sense and growing leadership skills.

“He's better in all areas now,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “Physically, he's always been a pretty gifted player for that position, but he's improved in his physical qualities. He's leader, faster, stronger than he's been. Has good endurance. I think the experience has [helped him] learn how to play in a 90-minute game, which was a weakness, maybe, in his first two seasons. He lost his concentration at times. He's grown in the physical part, and, obviously, technically and tactically he's getting better.”

The Galaxy have needed Gonzalez, who will turn 23 next month, to step up with Berhalter sidelined early in the season with a knee injury and again now with a sprained foot. Despite injuries across the backline, and especially to its depth in the middle, and with No. 1 goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, L.A. has surrendered just 22 goals in 27 games and posted a club-record 13 shutouts.

“What he's done for us is exceptional ...,” said Beckham. “He's grown up a little bit, and that comes from playing with experienced players and playing more games in this league. ... He's got an eagerness to learn, and he's got his size, his braveness, he sticks his head in when he needs to. He's got that aggression to his side, which all defenders need. And he's a young kid that still has a lot to learn, but he wants to learn, and that's the important thing.”

Donovan calls Gonzalez “a sponge.”

“He's soaked up a lot, and having Gregg next to him has been the best thing that could have happened to him,” the Galaxy captain said. “Gregg's in his ear all the time about certain things. He watches tape, he watches video. He wants to learn, and he's taking it all in, and he's applying it, and he's getting better and better. ...

“I think the biggest leap he's made is with his leadership. He's demanding things of people. And we need that out of him.”

Berhalter says he talks to Gonzalez about “positioning, footwork, what to look for when a guy has the ball, what's potentially in your blindside, your teammates around you, how to move the [restraining] line ... all sorts of things.”

Says Gonzalez: “I'm really confident right now, and whenever you're confident, that helps tremendously. There's just been things I want to work on this year, with the ball, positioning, the way that I angle my body defensively, and I think that I've been doing things well.”

Indeed. Gonzalez might be the best center back in MLS at the moment, and there's a growing call for his inclusion in Jurgen Klinsmann's roster for the U.S. national team's games next month on the East Coast against Honduras and Ecuador.

Gonzalez has been in three U.S. camps under previous coach Bob Bradley -- including the past two January camps -- and won caps in friendlies last summer against Brazil and in January against Chile.

Arena, who rarely offers a public recommendation, says he think Gonzalez “needs to be looked at” by Klinsmann and his staff.

“Those are obviously decisions that those guys make,” he said. “But there are a couple emerging center backs in this league that I think are going to have to be part of the national team program. But, again, that's my opinion.”

Gonzalez would love to get the invitation.

“I'm just going to keep my head down, keep on working hard,” he said. “And maybe one of these days I'll get the call-up.”

WORTH NOTING: Forward Robbie Keane might start on the bench -- or not make the 18-man game roster -- after returning from a grueling trip to Europe for Ireland's 2012 European Championship qualifiers in Dublin against Slovakia and in Moscow against Russia. Both games finished 0-0, and the Irish are second in the Group B standings with two games to go. ... Sean Franklin, who scored both of L.A. goals in Monday's 2-2 draw at Sporting Kansas City, has netted all four of his career goals in the past six games. ... Colorado has had 13 days since its last game, an exhausting 2-0 loss at Chicago following a CONCACAF Champions League clash three days earlier in Honduras, with 14-hour trips there and back to the U.S. ... Beckham's 12 assists are second to Houston's Brad Davis' 13. Donovan's 11 goals are second to New York's Thierry Henry's 12. ... The Galaxy won in mid-June, using an own goal and strikes by Juninho and Chad Barrett in a 3-1 triumph in Commerce City. ... L.A. leads the all-time regular-season series, 28-21-6 (2-1 on shootouts). ... Colorado forward Omar Cummings scored for Jamaica in a 5-2 loss last week at Ecuador.

MISSING: Berhalter (sprained foot) and fellow center backs Leonardo and Sean Alvarado (both torn ACLs) remain out. ... Beckham (fractured spine) Ricketts (broken arm) are questionable -- Beckham's been on the list for a while, but he's playing regularly.

THE OPPONENT

COLORADO RAPIDS

Head coach

  • Gary Smith, who played as midfielder in English soccer's lower divisions before beginning his coaching career at Wimbledon, has built the Rapids into one of MLS's fastest and most dangerous sides and guiding them to the MLS Cup title last November.

Three key players

  • Cummings has burst to the forefront the past two seasons, totaling 22 goals and 15 assists, and he's hit stride again after an injury-plagued start to 2011.

  • Gambian winger Sanna Nyassi stepped up with a hat trick and then scored again after Conor Casey's season ended with a snapped Achilles' tendon.

  • Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has been among the league's better central midfielders for several years, but he took a big step forward when paired with Pablo Mastroeni following last year's trade from New England. He's scored a career-best six goals this season.

Current form/prospects

  • After several starts and stops, the reigning MLS Cup champs have been in full stride, losing just once in 10 games -- 12, if you count CONCACAF Champions League matches -- before the loss two weeks ago in Chicago. Key is Cummings' rounding into form and the contributions of Nyassi and Caleb Folan after Casey went down, but the Rapids also have benefited from Brian Mullan's play since returning from a long suspension and their strength in central midfield and at the back.

Local connections

  • Defender Marvell Wynne, from Poway in San Diego County, was an All-American at UCLA. … Jamaican defender Tyrone Marshall was a starter for both of the Galaxy's MLS Cup champions; he played 139 league games for L.A. from 2002 through 2007. … Mullan began his MLS career with the Galaxy, playing in 39 league games in 2001-02. … Larentowicz was born in Pasadena (but raised near Philadelphia).

Missing

  • Defender Drew Moor is serving a yellow-card suspension, which will end his MLS-record (for a field player) 69-game streak of going the full 90. ... Casey (torn Achilles) and defender Anthony Wallace (sprained knee) are out. ... Midfielder Jamie Smith (calf and hamstring strains) is questionable. ... Goalkeeper Matt Pickens (groin strain) is probable.

THE GAME

At Livestrong Sporting Park (Kansas City, Kan.), 3 p.m.

TV: Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Deportes

Radio: ESPN Deportes (KWKW-AM/1330, Spanish)

Referee: Kevin Stott