TORONTO -- Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan have barely kicked a ball around with their Galaxy teammates. The first game is on plastic, a surface David Beckham diplomatically notes is “not ideal.” There will be some 45,000 red-clad maniacs screaming for blood.
The Galaxy open their 2012 campaign Wednesday night with as meaningful a match as they're apt to play before November arrives -- future CONCACAF Champions League battles aside -- and there are plenty of angles to consider.
The most telling could come at the back, where the hole Omar Gonzalez has so capably filled will be manned by someone else. The big question: Who?
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said he'll make a decision in the morning, perhaps 10 or 11 hours before L.A. and Major League Soccer rival Toronto FC face off in a quarterfinal first leg in domed Rogers Centre, but that's just coachspeak. All signs are that New Zealander Andrew Boyens will partner A.J. DeLaGarza in central defense.
The rest of the Galaxy lineup ought to look familiar: Josh Saunders in the nets, Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant as outside backs, the usual crew across midfield -- Donovan, Beckham, Juninho and Mike Magee -- and Keane up top with Edson Buddle, who's back after a year in Germany.
It's as good a lineup as can be seen in MLS, but Gonzalez -- MLS's reigning Defender of the Year, out until at least September because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- will be in a luxury suite, watching his teammates in an encounter that, if not quite must-win, should be considered can't-lose.
“Obviously, Omar's going to hurt. There's no question about that,” Donovan, L.A.'s captain, said on the eve of the club's trek to Canada's biggest city. “But we've got a system in place, and Bruce has done a really good job with the young guys and with Andrew, getting them ready to fill that role. There will probably be a mixing and matching of some guys, but we still feel confident.”
Arena says all of the options -- Boyens, who arrived from Chivas USA in December's re-entry process, and rookie Tommy Meyer are the best of the bunch -- are “ready to play,” that “they've had enough” time to figure things out in preseason, that it's “no different than we experienced some years ago” with Gonzalez and DeLaGarza, as rookies in 2009, “where we had to throw them to the wolves.”
Except it is different. The Galaxy has never played so significant a match to start their season, Toronto FC looks ready to take huge strides after five mostly forgettable campaigns -- and in Dutchman Danny Koevermans possesses an attacker that Arena calls “the real deal, as good a forward as there is” in MLS -- and Gonzalez's influence at the back cannot be understated. It's the one massive question mark staring down the club as it prepares to defend its MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield titles and become the league's first team to win CONCACAF's club championship since the tournament expanded to its current format in 2008.
“It's been something we've been working on all preseason,” said Dunivant said, the most experienced player on the Galaxy backline. “It's no secret that somebody's got to fill the big shoes of Omar. … It's still a work in progress -- it's by no means finished.
“Guys are just going to have to step up. That's what it comes down to in these kinds of games. You have to make plays and you can't make excuses. Whatever the deal is, we have to have 11 guys out there doing their job.”
Boyens, 28, has spent five seasons in MLS, making at least 10 starts in four of them, 21 as a rookie with Toronto in 2007, the Reds' first season. The former University of New Mexico All-American is tall (6 feet 4) and has international experience (he went to the World Cup in 2010 with New Zealand), but at times he appears awkward, and he struggled last year with Chivas, getting just 45 minutes of action from the start of June through late September. The Goats let him go at season's end, as New York had done a year before.
The Galaxy had defensive problems in preseason -- they conceded two or more goals in six of nine games -- but treated the matches as fitness exercises, more concerned with assessing youngsters' talents and integrating new players, such as Boyens and Meyer, into the squad.
L.A. was the top defensive club in MLS last year. Gonzalez was the biggest part of that, but it's the team's defensive approach, rather than who is manning which spots in the formation, that provides the definition.
“That's been out bread and butter the last three years. That's where we started and ended our success,” Dunivant said. “We've been difficult to score goals against and difficult to break down, and it makes a difference.”
Now, it appears, it's Boyens turn to help make that difference. Arena says he won't hesitate to give Meyer, who starred at Indiana, a shot at the job, but a debut in so important a clash in front of so large and emotional a crowd doesn't make a lot of sense. Apparently, Arena thinks so, too, although he won't say so publicly.
Meyer will, to some extent.
Asked after training Tuesday at Rogers Centre whether he'll be in the lineup, Meyer replied: “No, it will probably be Boy--,” and suddenly stopped, not wanting to give away secrets. “I'm not really sure who it is. But I don't think I'm starting tomorrow. It's a big game, the first away game, and I don't have that much experience. So it's definitely something [Arena] thinks about. I'll be ready whenever he needs me.”
Asked later whether he knew one way or another whether he'd start, he admitted he did know.
Boyens wasn't talking. “I'll let Bruce tell you that,” he said when asked point-blank. If he is playing, he said he's “very ready. I've had a few years in this league, and I'd like to think they've prepared me well for playing for what is a very good team.”
And on playing next to DeLaGarza: “We both talk a lot, and I think communication is going to be the key for us performing well tomorrow.”
Arena says he doesn't think the choice of center backs would be “the issue in the game, to be honest with you,” but the other issues -- field surface, away game, raucous crowd, Keane's and Donovan's returns -- appear minor.
The FieldTurf at Rogers, Arena said, is “the same for both teams” and is “certainly a better field than we've seen in Seattle and I think even New England.” Dunivant noted that “you want to play against 40,000 or 50,000 fans, whether they're going to be for you or against you -- it doesn't matter.” Keane and Donovan are coming off superb loan spells in England, and Donovan is healthy enough following a bout with flu and bronchitis.
“Games like this are familiar for us,” Donovan said. “We're used to playing in front of big crowds in important games, so that's a big plus for us.”
WORTH NOTING: The second leg in the two-games, total-goals series is next Wednesday at Home Depot Center, with attendance capped at 7,500 because of an agreement with Cal State Dominguez Hills about events on school nights, an issue primarily about traffic and parking. … Fox Soccer Channel and Telefutura (KFTR/Channel 46) will televise the game at 5 p.m. PT. … Los Angeles' Luis Silva (Salesian HS), a rookie from UC Santa Barbara expected to make a big splash for Toronto FC this year, admits he grew up a Galaxy fan but “not anymore.” He told TFC's website that the first leg was “definitely going to be my biggest game of my life.” … TFC central midfielder Julian de Guzman, a Canadian national-teamer, is suspended. … The Galaxy went 4-2-0 and won Group A last fall. Toronto went 3-2-1 and finished second, by a point, to Mexico's Pumas UNAM in Group C. … The Galaxy-TFCV winner will face the Seattle Sounders or Mexico's Santos Laguna in the semifinals. The Sounders are home for the first leg Wednesday, following the Galaxy game on FSC and Telefutura. … Defending champion Monterrey faces Mexican Primera Division leader Morelia on Tuesday night, and Pumas plays Thursday night at El Salvador's Isidro Metapan.