CARSON, Calif. -- When the Los Angeles Galaxy needed a deciding goal last Friday to send them to a sixth MLS Cup final appearance, neither of the team's biggest stars -- DavidBeckham nor Landon Donovan -- scored the winner in overtime against Houston.
Sure, it was Beckham who served up the corner kick in the 102nd minute of a wild Western Conference final, but it was rookie defender Omar Gonzalez who fought to get his head on the ball to keep a scoring chance alive. The 21-year-old knocked the ball down, and his defensive partner, veteran Gregg Berhalter, was able to poke it into the net.
It was fitting that Gonzalez and Berhalter teamed up to send the two-time MLS Cup winners to another title match, because with far less fanfare than L.A.'s star duo, the defensive pair was directly responsible for the Galaxy's turnaround from worst in the Western Conference last season to first place this year.
As it turned out, the Galaxy didn't need to fix their scoring problems to become successful -- they struck for goals galore under Ruud Gullit in 2008. What the team needed was to buckle down on the other side of the pitch.
"What's improved is our back line, which has gotten a lot more consistent," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said after the victory on Friday. "They're working quite well together. They move much better, they communicate better."
The central-defensive pairing is the fulcrum of the defense -- and neither Gonzalez nor Berhalter was part of the team last season. The former was still in college at the University of Maryland. Berhalter, who is 16 years older than his central-defense partner, was contemplating a move home from Germany, where he played for years in the Bundesliga and the German second division.
Because of their last-place finish in '08, the Galaxy were high on the allocation list to pick up Berhalter. Yet Arena, who coached Berhalter during his tenure in charge of the U.S. national team, had some concerns about the New Jersey native.
"I warned him that the quality of the league is a lot higher than people give it credit for and that it's not going to be easy," Arena said. "I've seen players come back here that didn't get it done and actually became a burden to their team."
Arena could have been making a thinly veiled dig at Claudio Reyna, who had a disastrous stint under his former national-team coach with the New York Red Bulls after joining MLS. But more of a concern was the immediate burden Arena warned Berhalter he'd have to assume next to the promising but young Gonzalez.
"There was [going to be] a kid next to him who was going to play whether he liked it or not," Arena recalled, "a 20-year-old center back who we [thought was] going to be a good one. It was going to be a growing process with him and I expected Gregg to support him and help in his development. Gregg bought into everything. He's a real pro. That's sometimes not easy to do when you bring American players back from Europe."
Gonzalez ended up exceeding expectations, beating a deep field to win Rookie of the Year honors. That in no small part was due to the mentoring and instant leadership Berhalter brought to the Galaxy defense, which more than one player said has changed the mentality of the team. That field-marshall approach was exactly what the squad needed, and Berhalter has taken that role seriously.
"Obviously, when you have someone who's 36 years old, who has been around for a while, I'm not on the field for my speed and for running by people," Berhalter said. "I'm there to keep people organized, to be helping out and to show leadership qualities."
As much as Berhalter filled his role with aplomb, the Galaxy still needed something more to transform the team. That's where Gonzalez stepped in. At 6-foot-5, and with a background as an attacking player, the defender has the speed and leaping ability to shut down a huge number of chances for the opposition. He's a spark for the squad, the youthful ace talent melding with the experience Berhalter brings.
Thanks to the hard work of the central defenders, as well as that of stonewalling Jamaican keeper Donovan Ricketts, the Galaxy cut the number of goals they allowed in '08 in half. L.A. was last in the league in goals allowed in '08 (2.07 per game), and improved to third-best this season (1.03).
What separates serviceable from superlative players is how they deal with setbacks. When the Galaxy gave up a record six goals to FC Dallas in September, Berhalter vowed the squad would learn from the bad game and bounce back. It did, much like Gonzalez later rebounded from a poor individual showing in his first playoff match last month against Chivas USA, a 2-2 draw in the Western Conference semifinals first leg. His improved play has been a big reason why the Galaxy haven't allowed a postseason goal since then.
While Berhalter is in the twilight of his career, Gonzalez's star is just beginning to rise. For the Galaxy, at least, it has made an enormous difference that both players have found a way to shine together on the field.