Carson, CA – You can never go home again, or so the expression goes. But for former LA Galaxy players AJ DeLaGarza and Leonardo, returning to StubHub Center to play against their previous club on Saturday proved to be something different.
And maybe, all along, they knew it was time to move on.
DeLaGarza departed the Galaxy under a cloud of mystery involving a draft-day trade. Once thought to be safe for the 2017 season, new general manager Pete Vagenas decided to pull the trigger on a deal that saw the Galaxy fan favorite depart for the Houston Dynamo in exchange for allocation money.
The swiftness of the move left no time for ceremony or goodbyes, let alone an explanation. One minute DeLaGarza was at his home, near the beach, just miles from the stadium and the club that drafted him out of college and the next moment he and his family were on their way to Houston.
“I said before it was a quick exit for me,” DeLaGarza explained after the Dynamo’s 2-2 draw with the Galaxy. “I didn’t really have a chance to thank them [fans].”
And, in many ways, fans never got the chance to express their thanks, either.
“This is the first time the fans have seen me since last year,” he said. “Kind of closure for them and myself.
“It’s good to be back and be in familiar territory.”
Leonardo’s situation perhaps was a little different, since he never developed into a trusted starter under former head coach and general manager Bruce Arena. He failed to settle into the Galaxy defense and appeared to be a player who needed regular playing time.
Under the right conditions, he was a solid MLS center back and even won the Galaxy’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015– the year he started an MLS career-high 25 matches.
He joined the Dynamo after being selected in the 2016 Re-Entry Draft and immediately turned his sights toward becoming an every-day starter for his new club.
“Last year I had a couple of injuries, two surgeries,” he said Saturday. “I didn’t have too many opportunities because some players came in and played very well. It was difficult.
“I think this was a very good move for me.”
Both players couldn’t help but have some reservations, even butterflies, about coming back onto the StubHub Center field as an opposing player.
“I spent seven years here,” Leonardo explained. “I felt emotional, excited to play.”
DeLaGarza expressed similar sentiments.
“I think when I stepped out it was obviously one of those games you mark on the calendar,” he said. “It came up quick. It goes by quick.”
For both players, there likely is some lingering resentment of how their time at the Galaxy ended – abrupt and without much fanfare. And they’ve surely played out every scenario of how it could have been different.
But in the end, perhaps the moves, at least individually, were the right ones.
“My wife and I are happy in Houston,” DeLaGarza said. “We’re enjoying it and embracing it.
“For me, it was time for a change.”
For the Galaxy, who have suffered through what seems to be endless injuries on the back line, there is no doubt both players could have been useful this season. After all, the Galaxy did not have a spare defender available to sit on the bench Saturday.
The club has separated from DeLaGarza and Leonardo, but neither player will be separated from the history of the team. And perhaps more importantly, they can’t be separated from the fans.
“I’m not part of this team, but I will be a part of the Galaxy and the history,” DeLaGarza said.
And, he continued, “The fans are part of my life.”
Note: The title photograph is by Steve Carrillo and was taken during the 2016 season when AJ DeLaGarza was still a member of the LA Galaxy. All Rights Reserved.