Galaxy's Leonardo sees importance of finishing regular season with a win

Galaxy's Leonardo sees importance of finishing regular season with a win
Galaxy defender Leonardo and Portland Timbers forward Fanendo Adi (9) in action during an MLS match on Oct. 18. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Brazilian defender Leonardo has spent more time with the Galaxy than either David Beckham or Robbie Keane. But you would never guess that by looking at his record.

Because while Beckham and Keane became iconic stars in Major League Soccer, Leonardo became mostly invisible, sitting out more games than he has played since coming to the league six years ago. That's been especially true in the postseason: While the Galaxy has won three MLS titles since Leonardo joined the team in 2010, he has appeared in just three playoff games.


So few have more to play for than Leonardo in the Galaxy's final regular-season game Sunday at Sporting Kansas City (4 p.m, ESPN, ESPN Deportes), where a win could set up a long postseason run while a loss or draw could leave the team facing a quick elimination in a knockout-round game.

"We all have the same objective, to make the playoffs," Leonardo said in Spanish, one of three languages he speaks fluently.

But, he added, not all playoff invitations are equal. And for the Galaxy, which assured itself a postseason berth three weeks ago, the scenarios going forward are numerous.

Win Sunday and the team finishes second in the Western Conference, earning passage through to the conference semifinals where it will have the home-field advantage. However a loss — combined with wins by Seattle, Portland and Vancouver — could see the Galaxy tumble as far as fifth in the standings, forcing it to play a midweek winner-take-all game on the road, where it has the league's third-worst record.

For Leonardo there is another stat worth noting, one that puts more emphasis on the importance of winning Sunday: In the last two seasons, the Galaxy has won all four of its playoff games at StubHub Center but it's gone winless on the road.

"You can't worry about anything but that game," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. "It's good to put our team in this situation. It will be interesting to see how we respond."

Especially since the team is in the midst of an epic meltdown that has included it winning just one of its last six games. Last week the Galaxy may have hit bottom when it allowed five second-half goals in a 5-2 loss to Portland.

The five goals were the most the Galaxy defense has allowed at home in six years, so it was ironic the team chose that night to honor Leonardo as its defender of the year. Yet it was also fitting because the award highlighted a solid season in which the oft-injured 27-year-old led all defenders with a career-high 25 starts.

"It's recognition of the work you do, starting in the preseason," he said. "After five years I've gotten to this level. I never stopped."

And that meant overcoming several obstacles.

As a 22-year-old central defender on loan from Sao Paulo, Leonardo helped the Galaxy to shutouts in its first three games in 2010 before missing much of the rest of the season because of injury. Ditto 2011, when he started the first seven games — only one of which the Galaxy lost — before tearing two ligaments in his left knee, which kept him out for 23 months.

He finally got a chance to show what he could do last year, when he played 24 regular-season games, then went 120 minutes in the MLS Cup final win over New England.

And he's been even better this season, playing in front of three goalkeepers and anchoring a back line on which he's surrounded by three current or former national team players.

"When you play more games, you get more experience, more confidence," said Leonardo, who made two age-group national teams in Brazil. "That's the big difference."


Arena agrees.

"Having last year, where he was healthy, gave him the confidence coming into this season," he said.

It gave him one other thing too: a desire to make a long playoff run of his own after watching his teammates win two of the last four MLS Cups from the sidelines. But that, he warned, may not happen without a win Sunday.

"I'm happy it's important to him," Arena said. "Now we need 10 other guys who think the same way."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11