GALAXY 2012: Trophies are the aim
CARSON -- Things aren't particularly complicated with the Galaxy. They're expected to win, and anything less isn't acceptable, not after three straight Western Conference titles, back-to-back Supporters' Shields and last November's triumph in the MLS Cup title game.
The aim is the same and the side -- on paper, at least -- appears superior in every way except one, maybe two, with the returns of striker Edson Buddle and central midfielders David Beckham and Juninho, the additions of Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Sarvas and a few more veterans, plus the experience Robbie Keane gained in his first go-round in this most different and difficult of leagues.
Major League Soccer's hardware is again there for the taking, but the added firepower up front can't mask the big hole at the back. Backline leader Omar Gonzalez, the tall, terrific Texan who deservedly won the league's Defender of the Year honor in 2011, is out until at least September because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and effectively replacing him likely will be the cardinal determiner in whether this year's group can be as successful as last year's.
The mission, says Beckham, “hasn't changed. We want to be champion at the end of this season like we were last season. … You always have goals. You want to better the season before, and to do that, we have to go all the way again.”
The Galaxy went 19-5-10 in last year's regular season, then sprinted to four playoff victories -- capturing the title with a one-sided 1-0 victory over Houston at Home Depot Center -- to cap the club's finest campaign with its third MLS Cup championship. Only two teams, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena's D.C. United in 1996-97 and Houston in 2006-07, have repeated.
“It's always tough to keep hold of a championship and retain that. It's going to be no different for us,” Beckham said. “As long as we play our game and work like we did last season, then we have a chance.”
The additions of Buddle, back after a year in Germany, and Sarvas are significant, but other arrivals -- forward Pat Noonan, defender Andrew Boyens, midfielder Kyle Nakazawa and goalkeeper Bill Gaudette -- have added to L.A.'s depth. Buddle and Keane could be the most potent frontline partnership in the league, especially with Beckham's service, Donovan's contributions and right back Sean Franklin's advancing attacking acumen.
“Getting Edson back, there's not many teams that are going to make a better acquisition than that,” Donovan said. “And we were under the impression that we had lost Juninho [in a loan recall by São Paulo], and to get him back is a big plus, too. [We're] not a front six of guys that I would ever want to play against if I was an opposing defender.”
Replacing Gonzalez is key and quite tricky. The would-be replacement, Brazilian Leonardo, is still rehabbing his knee injury from last year. Boyens took the spot next to A.J. DeLaGarza, who must have a huge campaign, in Wednesday night's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Toronto FC. Top draft pick Tommy Meyer will be groomed to replace Gonzalez, who would soon be heading to Europe, injury or no injury.
Solidifying the backline will “be an ongoing challenge,” Arena acknowledges, but that's what must be done, especially with so many competitions -- they're trying to win one Champions League at the moment, and another starts in August -- on a thick schedule.
“Omar's not here, he's not going to be here for awhile ...,” Arena said. “That's all part of the process with every team. We're learning what we're about, and you got to make due that way.”
Championships, of course, aren't won on paper, and there's no telling whether everything can align as perfectly as occurred last year. Despite myriad injuries, to nearly every important player on the roster, the Galaxy dominated the competition while winning its group in the Champions League. They received career years from a lot of role players (Best XI left back Todd Dunivant; playoff hero Mike Magee; Juninho and DeLaGarza; Josh Saunders, who made expendable 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts) and MVPish performances from Beckham, Donovan and Gonzalez.
Real Salt Lake, Saturday's opening-night foe at HDC, and especially Seattle look superior, too, and no question they're hungrier. The Galaxy might require a perfect season to match 2011, or perhaps a late sprint -- the best team at the finish so often celebrates -- will be enough. Either way, expect a wild ride.