No Beckham? No sweat
The Galaxy's wonderful play is directly related to the hiring of Bruce Arena in 2008
L.A. reached the MLS Cup final in November and lost on penalties to Real Salt Lake after a 1-1 draw. This season, the Galaxy have scored the most goals (15, or 1.88 per game) and given up the fewest (2, 0.25 per game) in the league.
But how will the club fare without its big attacking stars? It will soon find out: Landon Donovan, whose nine assists are tops in MLS, and Edson Buddle, who scored a league-best nine goals in the first six games, head to Princeton, N.J., after the Toronto match for the start of the U.S. national team's pre-World Cup training camp.
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Donovan is a certainty to make coach Bob Bradley's 23-man World Cup roster, and Buddle appears to have a good shot at joining him in South Africa, where the U.S. will face England, Slovenia and Algeria in the group stage.
They're unlikely to return to the Galaxy until the Fourth of July match with Seattle at Home Depot Center; later if the U.S. can pull off a surprise or two. A player who won't be joining L.A. after the World Cup is English star David Beckham, whose performance after returning in July from a loan spell at AC Milan was pivotal in the Galaxy's title-game run.
Beckham suffered a torn Achilles tendon in March while playing for AC Milan, ending his dreams of playing in a fourth World Cup and sending him to the sidelines until at least October, perhaps later. The Galaxy hopes he can return for the MLS playoffs.
So why has the Galaxy been so dominant in the first nearly two months of the MLS campaign? Why is the Galaxy so good?
Here are a half-dozen reasons:
Buddle scored 15 goals two years ago, netting most of them in a seven-game stretch midway through the season, but injuries, one after another, slowed him down or forced him from field much of last season, when he got only five. So he spent the offseason honing his game, strengthening his body and taking a huge step forward. He's exhibited a greater tactical understanding, has become a tireless defender and has used his superb touch to combine with teammates and score goals of great quality.
How good has Buddle been? Two months ago, he wasn't even on the World Cup radar. Now he's one of 30 players battling for 23 roster berths, and it won't be a surprise if he's on the field in South Africa.
2. AMERICA'S BEST, PART 1: Landon Donovan is the greatest soccer talent America has produced, and he's been the Galaxy's most important player every season since joining the club in 2005, when he carried L.A. to its second MLS Cup championship. He has matured greatly, especially since a poor outing at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and no longer can be considered a first-rate talent who too often disappears on the field.
He's demanded more responsibility the past couple of seasons, and his MVP performance last year -- which followed a 20-goal, Golden Boot-winning campaign in 2008 -- had plenty to do with his reappointment last year as the Galaxy captain, which he had surrendered under pressure when David Beckham first arrived in 2007. He's a true leader now, in ways he couldn't be before, and his ability to fuse the Galaxy attack has been pivotal in the club's success. Opposing players speak in awe about what he's capable of.
That Donovan might be even better this year is product of a superb 10 weeks on loan to Everton at the start of the year. He'd endured three unsuccessful stints in Germany, as a teen and just before joining the Galaxy with Bayer Leverkusen and on loan last year to Bayern Munich, but his time in England was tremendous: He scored and created goals, won over the Toffees' loyal fans and convincingly demonstrated that he could do great things in the world's finest league. The confidence that experience brought him has been showcased in every Galaxy game.
Without those failures, the Galaxy might never have made what is unquestionably the best move in club history: hiring, in 2008, Bruce Arena as head coach and general manager. He rebuilt the team over the next 15 months, bringing in more than a dozen new players, discarding those who didn't fit, and prodding the club to new heights last season.
Arena is unparalleled as an American soccer coach. The former goalkeeper, who made one appearance for the U.S. national team, has won everywhere he's been: five NCAA titles at Virginia, the first two MLS Cup championships (and a berth in the third title game) with D.C. United, continental crowns and the quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup with the U.S. side.
What Arena does best is build teams. He has an unerring eye for talent, both on the field and in terms of chemistry, and with the Galaxy he has brought in veteran leadership (with World Cup veterans Gregg Berhalter and Eddie Lewis), added bite to the midfield (with Dema Kovalenko), added players capable of magic (with Clint Mathis) and blooded youngsters who have performed like veterans (with Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, UCLA's Michael Stephens and the Brazilian trio: Juninho, Leonardo and Alex Cazumba). He's also put together MLS's best coaching staff, bringing in former Chicago Fire head coach Dave Sarachan as associate head coach and keeping Galaxy legend Cobi Jones as an assistant coach.
Without Arena, the Galaxy isn't playing in last year's final, and they certainly aren't off to a 7-0-1 start this season.
4. DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS: The cliché is absolutely true, and Arena's first task upon taking charge in L.A. was to rework the league's worst defense. He brought in veteran Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, reworked the backline (luring Berhalter from Germany, bringing back Todd Dunivant from Toronto FC, and drafted Gonzalez and DeLaGarza from 2008 NCAA champion Maryland), and added substance to the midfield with Kovalenko and Englishman Chris Birchall.
Only two teams gave up fewer goals last year than the Galaxy did, and this year's effort has been even better, with six shutouts in eight games. L.A. started the year without Berhalter, but Leonardo stepped in and capably partnered with Gonzalez, last season's MLS Rookie of the Year, in the middle. When right back Sean Franklin, the 2008 MLS Rookie of the Year, went down with a sprained ankle, DeLaGarza stepped in. When DeLaGarza went down with back spasms, Bryan Jordan, an attacking player, stepped in and has done just fine. Kovalenko has missed a half-dozen games with a hamstring strain, and L.A. continues to control midfield.
Only twice has the Galaxy surrendered six shots on goal, and both were shutouts. When foes have penetrated, a defender -- often Gonzalez or DeLaGarza -- has come up with a big play or Ricketts has made an outstanding save.
5. CONSISTENCY AND CONTINUITY: The Galaxy needed the first three months of the 2009 campaign to build an understanding among all the new acquisitions. There was just one win (and one loss) in the first 11 games, and heading into the final weekend in June, L.A. was just 2-3-9. Then things started clicking, with four straight wins, five in six games, a 7-1-2 spree and a seven-game unbeaten streak to close the season. The final draw, in the title game, was capped with a shootout loss.
Nearly everyone who contributed to last year's side returned. Only midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi, an expansion-draft pick by Philadelphia, and Beckham, who wasn't going to return until the World Cup was over anyway, are missing.
Donovan says the most important aspect of the Galaxy's success has been continuity, the familiarity among teammates -- knowing, for instance, how each other likes to receive the ball, or what kind of runs everyone makes.
6. STRIKE FIRST: The Galaxy has taken an early lead, by the 27th minute, in every game except the scoreless draw in Kansas City. The goals may be concocted from anything -- free kicks, crosses, individual brilliance, rebounds, corner kicks -- but so far, they always come:
• Buddle headed home Donovan's free kick from the left flank six minutes into the 1-0 season-opening victory over New England.
• Buddle raced past a defender to nod in Sean Franklin's cross from the right wing seven minutes into the 2-0 triumph over Chivas USA.
• Buddle beat Pat Onstad from an abrupt angle, slipping the ball between the goalkeeper and the near post en route to the far-post netting, in the 27th minute of the 2-0 win at Houston.
• Buddle headed in Donovan's corner kick in the 12th minute of the 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake.
• DeLaGarza slipped in behind the defense at the far post, sliding into Buddle's cross-box feed just 53 seconds into the 3-1 win over Philadelphia.
• Alan Gordon headed home Donovan's free kick 21 minutes into the 1-0 triumph at Colorado.
• Jovan Kirovski finished a nice passing sequence with a 28-yard blast through Kasey Keller's hands in the 22nd minute to start a 4-0 romp at Seattle.
Scott French is a freelance journalist and author of the Soccer Blog at ESPNLosAngeles.com