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Improved Galaxy defense a case of addition and subtraction

Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard during the first half of a game on March 12.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Steven Gerrard didn’t want to point fingers. But he wasn’t about to pull any punches either.

So when he was asked about this year’s Galaxy defense, which has given up the second-fewest goals in MLS, and last year’s, which collapsed down the stretch and finished third-worst in the Western Conference, Gerrard was blunt.

“It feels different,” said Gerrard, who will miss Saturday’s road game against the defending MLS champion Portland Timbers because of a leg injury. “It feels like we’ve got men in here. Men who are prepared to do the dirty work and prepared to put their bodies on the line, go the extra mile for each other.

“Last year — without naming names — we were too weak.”

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But Gerrard didn’t have to name names. A check of the Galaxy roster shows just one defender, former U.S. national team center back Omar Gonzalez, who started more than 20 games last season and didn’t return for this one.

Gonzalez won three league championships in six seasons in Los Angeles. He was an MLS Cup MVP, the league’s defender and rookie of the year and a four-time All-Star. But by the end of last season he frequently appeared lost as the Galaxy surrendered 10 goals in their final three games en route to their earliest postseason exit since 2008.

Two months later, Gonzalez was sold to Pachuca of Mexico’s Liga MX.

“He had a lot of things going through his head. His contract, everything else,” said one Galaxy official, who would discuss Gonzalez’s final season only anonymously. “He probably didn’t play at the level he was capable of playing. And it hurt our team.”

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Gerrard says the change from last season is obvious for a team that has climbed through the standings on the back of its defense, losing just once since May and allowing a league-low two scores in its last seven games.

“We were too flaky all over the pitch. And we were conceding stupid goals,” said Gerrard, who has been limited to 12 starts this season because of injury. “That was the reason we all went home in October.”

It’s also the reason why Bruce Arena, the team’s coach and general manager, made toughening that defense a priority last winter, signing Belgium’s Jelle Van Damme to replace Gonzalez and adding World Cup veterans Ashley Cole at left back and Nigel de Jong as a holding midfielder. (Cole, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, is also likely to miss Saturday’s game.)

But what’s really buoyed the team has been solid play from unexpected starters Daniel Steres and Dave Romney. In the four MLS games that pair has played together in the last month, the Galaxy have yet to lose — and have yet to give up a goal.

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Defender A.J. DeLaGarza said the team, not just Gonzalez, bore responsibility for last season’s defensive collapse. But, he added, his former college teammate at Maryland clearly needed a fresh start and he’s resurrected his career in Mexico, starting 22 of 23 games for Pachuca in the Clausura, anchoring a defense that allowed a league-low 16 goals while winning its first league title in a decade.

“He’s in a different situation now,” DeLaGarza said of Gonzalez. “You can get comfortable when you’re somewhere for so long. And when you go somewhere new, you kind of have to prove yourself all over again.

“He’s definitely done that.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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