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Sunday, November 27, 2011
GALAXY: L.A. answered the challenges

By Scott French

Galaxy celebrate
The Galaxy's run to an MLS Cup title wasn't smooth or easy, but it was definitely rewarding.

CARSON -- What might be most impressive about the Galaxy's conquests this season aren't the victories (28, with just eight losses, in 46 competitive matches) or the hardware (MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield) or even -- and this probably was the highest achievement -- the dauntless leap to the top spot in the CONCACAF Champions League's toughest group.

It's that the Galaxy did all of this with limited access to their first-choice lineup.

Injuries enough to derail the noblest aspirations had little impact on L.A., which rolled over its domestic competition and relied on Juninho's heroics to track down a favorable berth in the region's club quarterfinals come March.

More than a dozen players, including nearly every major contributor, were sent to the sideline for a spell -- some for two or three spells -- as head coach Bruce Arena, in arguably the finest season in a storied managerial career, mixed and matched brilliantly while shepherding the Galaxy through a wearisome schedule with no more than three hiccups, really, from start to finish.

To do so ...
“It was a great season,” said midfielder Chris Birchall, another of the Galaxy's under-the-radar sparkplugs. “We won the Supporters' Shield, the MLS Cup, and we qualified for the Champions League. That was our aim at the beginning of the season. A lot of us looked at each other, thinking it was a bit of a tough ambition, but we did everything right.”

The Galaxy feasted on the talents of the league's richest squad -- Beckham ($6.5 million), Keane ($3.4 million) and Donovan ($2.3 million) are Nos. 1, 4 and 5 on the league's best-paid list -- and a defensive approach that made the difference in a 19-5-10 regular season, four wins in the Champions League and the perfect playoff run.

They did so despite the loss early in the season of Brazilian center back Leonardo, who had won a starting job in backline leader Gregg Berhalter's injury-forced absence, and a revolving roster elsewhere on the field as some 20 players missed games because of ailment, suspension and international duty.

The primary challenge?

“You know, I think you can't single out any one thing,” said Arena, the first coach with three MLS Cup titles. “Every day, there's another issue you're dealing with. It's challenging. There's a lot of factors. I don't think we ever got our starting lineup on the field this year. There were a lot injuries, suspensions, national team call-ups. We never really got into a rhythm where we had our first group together.

“We lost Leonardo at the start. No one kind of remembers that, but maybe our team would have looked like Leonardo and Gonzalez at center back, Ricketts in the goal, DeLaGarza right back, [right back Sean] Franklin right midfield, Donovan and Keane up top. None of that stuff ever happened. Which is highly unusual.

“You ask what was most difficult? There were a lot of things. There were challenges usually every week.”

The Galaxy's knack for rising to the constant challenge was about their efficiency, their organization and their ability to grind out results even when the soccer, as it often was, wasn't very pretty.

They tied MLS's regular-season record with 17 shutouts, posted two more in the playoffs -- and another three in the CCL -- and conceded only once in 15 games, all competitions. Ricketts and Saunders finished 1-2 for goals-against average in MLS, and two of three defenders on MLS' Best XI all-league team, Gonzalez and Dunivant, were from L.A. Gonzalez was runaway winner as MLS's Defender of the Year. (Arena was Coach of the Year, and L.A. had four of the slots on Best XI, with Donovan and Beckham, too.)

DeLaGarza was nearly as good, starting 42 games in all competitions, most in the middle but a few at right back. Franklin had some exceptional games on the right and finished strongly after a knee injury sidelined him for most of the Champions League slate.

Juninho in his second MLS season stepped into the upper tier of MLS midfielders. He scored significant goals -- six in all, five from long range -- and was responsible for L.A.'s Champions League success, scoring in stoppage to beat Mexico's Morelia and with a dipping blast to win at Motagua in Honduras in the first real must-win games of the season.

Magee came up huge all year, whether in the nets -- putting on the gloves after Ricketts was hurt and Saunders red-carded and shutting out San Jose -- or attacking the left flank: He scored 10 goals in all, three of them in playoff victories twice over New York and in the Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake.

Berhalter, as always, provided leadership even when he couldn't step onto the field. Birchall, whose performance in Juninho's absence was pivotal in the second leg of the playoff opener against New York, and Michael Stephens provided solid midfield depth. Chad Barrett's and Adam Cristman's work ethics up top were key, and they combined for 11 goals. Aging vets Frankie Hejduk and Jovan Kirovski were sharp in spot duty. South American newcomers Paolo Cardozo, with otherworldly skill, and Miguel Lopez showed signs of what Arena hopes they'll become. Rookies Dan Keat and Hector Jimenez took steps toward winning spots in a talented rotation.

Donovan was the team's MVP. Many thought the honor should have gone to Beckham, around whose golden right foot the attack revolved. A strong argument could be made for Gonzalez. Dunivant and Juninho belong in the conversation, and maybe Magee, too.

“I think if anyone asks me who the most valuable player on this team is, I couldn't give you the answer to that question,” Arena said. “I think there's a lot of unsung heroes. There's always an emphasis on team and doing your job to help make the team better, so when I looked at this stuff all year -- when they had Player of the Week or Player of the Month or Player of the Year -- it would be hard for me to necessarily name a Galaxy player, because all we do is play as a team.”

One might frame the campaign with two matches, very different: the 4-1 defeat in March at Real Salt Lake, a blowout that should have been far, far worse, and last weekend's comprehensive 1-0 triumph over the Houston Dynamo to capture the club's third MLS Cup crown.

The first was eye-opening. The Galaxy, without Donovan, Gonzalez and Ricketts, played patsy as RSL strung together 25-and-more-pass sequences in a performance that deserved about a dozen goals. It prodded a rethink on defensive organization, the foundation on which Arena had rebuilt the club, and led L.A. on the next step of a transition from counterattacking side to a team that can possess and play pretty, flowing, attacking soccer.

That's not their character. L.A. doesn't play with the style and verve that RSL and New York were exhibiting early in the season, but it created a deadly attack by marrying an effective short-passing game to the direct approach created by Beckham's pinpoint service from distance.

The Galaxy put together one MLS unbeaten streak after another -- five games, then 14, then seven -- more or less conceding the result on three occasions (at Seattle in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal and in late league games in New York and Houston) to preserve sanity and combat exhaustion. When Keane arrived in August, with a nose for the net and runs that terrorized defenses and opened attacking space, it was over.

L.A. cruised to a second straight Supporters' Shield, a third straight Western Conference championship and into a record seventh MLS Cup, where it carved up the league's hottest side in a romp far more one-sided than the score suggests.

The Galaxy became just the sixth team in 16 years to win the Shield and the Cup -- the 2002 Galaxy, with Carlos Ruiz scoring 32 goals, did so, too -- and, just by adding up all the numbers (19 wins, 67 points, 4-0 postseason, 19 shutouts, etc.) and trophies, is winning acclaim as the finest side MLS has seen.

The foundation for additional success -- back-to-back titles, a third Shield, victory in the Champions League -- remains, but the offseason challenges will be considerable. If Beckham, whose contract is up, decides to depart for Paris Saint-Germain, the attack will have to be retooled, likely with Cardozo taking on a larger role in the buildup. Keane and Donovan would give L.A. a frightening frontline duo.

Juninho's loan deal with Sao Paulo is done, and L.A. must weigh the asking price to bring him back. Several players -- including Franklin and Birchall -- are out of contract or in an option year. Working around the league financial strictures will be difficult, and more rebuilding will be required in the offseason.