CARSON -- The last time Josh Saunders touched a ball in a Major League Soccer game, he was making a stoppage-time save on a penalty kick to deliver for the Galaxy a victory at Colorado.
Within a week, the goalkeeper was off in the league's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program -- dealing with stress, he says -- and L.A. was in free fall. They've gone eight first-team games since without a win, dropping into the Western Conference cellar, the Galaxy's 3-8-2 record unimaginable three months ago, and falling to a lower-level club in the U.S. Open Cup.
Saunders is back in the nets for the Galaxy, starting with Sunday afternoon's Home Depot Center clash against the Portland Timbers (3-5-4), and if they're looking for some signal that this could turn things around, there were two MLS Reserve League games this month, both victories, both with Saunders in goal.
“Let's hope it continues,” David Beckham said as the Galaxy prepared for its first match since May 29. “If that happens on Sunday, it'll be down to the work we've been doing during these couple of weeks we've had off, and having Josh back can also lift the team.”
The Galaxy's lack of success with Saunders gone is “just coincidence,” the netminder said, but coach Bruce Arena doesn't agree.
“I don't think it's coincidence,” he said. “I think strong goalkeeping helps you win games, whether it keeps you in a game or results in you maybe getting behind. ... Goalkeepers are valuable to teams, and our team is not tested a whole lot. We've not been put under a while lot of pressure during the year, but still required to make timely saves and important saves, and we haven't gotten that on a consistent basis.”
Bill Gaudette and Brian Perk were no worse than Saunders, and Gaudette maybe a little better, from late April through the end of May, but having the No. 1 on the field can breed confidence. Captain Landon Donovan doesn't think it's an issue, and he's probably correct.
“I would say our goalies have been the least of our problems this year,” Donovan said. “We've got to get all the other stuff right. We've got goalkeepers here who can make plays when needed to, but we're leaving them on an island a lot of these games. We've got to do a better job in front of them, and then when we need them to make plays, they need to make plays.”
Getting “the other stuff” right requires a different attitude.
“I think what's been most frustrating is I don't think we can all look in the mirror and say we've given everything we have, myself included,” Donovan said. “And at the end of all of it, if you do that and you lose, so be it. That's life. But we haven't done that, so we need to make sure we get back to that. ... I need to be a better leader. These guys depend on me, and I need to do a better job of that, and I think if I do that, these guys will follow.”
After three weeks away from league play, a break for international fixture dates, perhaps the Galaxy must approach this as a new start to the season, just forget all that's come so far. Perhaps not.
“No, because we've thought that every time we've gone into a game where we've had a bad result the week before,” mostly without an success, Beckham said. “It's important that we get back to our winning ways, but I think as a team we're together -- that's the important part -- and we'll work our way out of the position we're in. A couple of good wins takes you back up the table. We'll be OK.”
“We have a lot of time left to get things right,” he said, “but there's definitely an urgency about this game.”
There better be. Last year, the first season with 34 games, 46 points were needed to reach the playoffs. The Galaxy needs 35 points in their last 21 games to reach that, which would require 12 more wins or 11-8-2, 10-6-5, 9-4-8, 8-2-11 or 7-0-14 finishes.
WORTH NOTING: Omar Gonzalez returned to game-situation scrimmaging in training this week, and the club says his target date -- mid- to late summer -- has not changed. ... Robbie Keane misses his fourth straight league game -- he has one more match to go with Ireland at Euro 2012, Monday vs. Italy in Poznan, Poland. ... Six more are out with injury (see below), and midfielders Mike Magee, Hector Jimenez and Michael Stephens are suspended. ... Beckham and Portland forward Kris Boyd will be suspended with their next yellow cards. ... Timbers defender Futty Danso is away with Gambia's national team. ... The Galaxy leads the all-time series, 2-1-0, with victories in both games at HDC, including a 3-1 decision April 14 after late goals by Juninho and Beckham. Portland won, 3-0, last season at Jeld-Wen and will be home for the July 14 meeting. ... The Timbers face Chivas USA in an MLS Reserve League match Monday on Field 4 at Home Depot Center.
Head coach: John Spencer
Key players: F Kris Boyd, M/F Darlington Nagbe, F Danny Mwanga, G Troy Perkins, M Kalif Alhassan, M Jack Jewsbury, D Mamadou “Futty” Danso.
Local guys: M Sal Zizzo (UCLA).
Update: Spencer nearly took the expansion Timbers to the MLS playoffs last year, but they've been in or near the Western Division basement the past 2½ months and could fall to last with a loss here. Since the April 14 loss to L.A., they've fallen just once in six league games and arrive with a four-game MLS unbeaten streak. But their last competitive game -- the May 30 U.S. Open Cup loss to amateurs Cal FC -- was an embarrassment they are anxious to put behind them. Former Oregon State star Mwanga, the top pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, figures to make his Portland debut after a June 6 trade from Philadelphia.
Out: D Andrew Boyens (sports hernia), F Edson Buddle (right knee surgery), F Adam Cristman (concussion), D Omar Gonzalez (left ACL tear), M Dan Keat (right knee surgery), D Leonardo (right knee inflammation).
Questionable: D Bryan Gaul (facial fracture), M Hector Jimenez (left quad hematoma).
Out: D Eric Brunner (concussion), D Rodney Wallace (right ankle sprain).
Home Depot Center (Carson), 4 p.m.
Referee: Geoff Gamble.
TV: KDOC/Channel 56 (English) and KWHY/Channel 22 (Spanish, 5 p.m.)
Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKW-AM/1330, Spanish)