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Thursday, March 15, 2012
GALAXY: There are pluses to ouster

By Scott French

Nick Soolsma
Elimination from the Champions League will allow the Galaxy to refocus their efforts.

CARSON -- The Galaxy's unexpected collapse in the CONCACAF Champions League came as a body blow for Major League Soccer's top team. “We definitely expected to advance,” noted captain Landon Donovan, who before both quarterfinal legs with Toronto FC said when the “opportunity to do something special” comes along, “we want to take advantage of it.”

Instead, it's Canada's team, after a 2-1 second-leg win for a 4-3 aggregate triumph, that will join three Mexican clubs -- Santos Laguna, Monterrey and Pumas UNAM -- in the final four. The prevailing mood in the Galaxy locker room? “Kind of a bit of disbelief,” reported Mike Magee.

The Galaxy, 0-2-1 to start the year, dictated terms all night but weren't sharp enough to find the net, and errors in the back -- including two very costly failures by rookie Tommy Meyer against Ryan Johnson -- cost L.A. its chance to be special.

The Champions League, which sends the victor to next December's FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, was the Galaxy's No. 1 priority this year. It wasn't going to be easy: Santos Laguna, who would have been L.A.'s semifinal foe is the best side in the competition, and the other side of the bracket is nearly as good. There remains a gap between Mexico's top league and everyone else, especially with Mexican clubs in midseason form and MLS teams nowhere close to that.

The Galaxy's preseason development lagged behind nearly everyone else's in MLS. They started a week later than most clubs after playing into December, were without two-thirds of their Designated Players during all of preseason, and haven't yet figured out how to overcome losing Omar Gonzalez to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Exiting the competition might be a good thing. They drop at least two and as many as seven games from a heavy schedule that could have kept them on the field, from preseason kickoff to final whistle, for nearly 11 months. They're able to focus on developing this team -- building chemistry among the attackers, solidifying the back line best they can without Gonzalez, implementing that killer attitude so important in last year's title run -- while pursuing the three domestic titles and readying for another Champions League go when the next tournament kicks off in late summer.

“I think the biggest thing we need is time to get on the practice field and work on things,” Donovan said Wednesday night, “because when you're playing game after game, you don't have time to train. As disappointing as this is, at least after this weekend we have two full weeks to get back on the field, watch tape, work on things that we need to get better at so that we can all start gelling better.”

Losing four potential Champions League games is the “bright side” to the loss, defender Todd Dunivant suggested. “Of course, we'd prefer to have that and still be in the tournament, but it's not how it's going to be. So we'll look at the bright side and take a little more rest.”

BLAME GAME: The blame for the Galaxy's failure can be spread around. Some goes to MLS, for its inequitable first-week scheduling that gave Toronto FC a full week to prepare for the second leg while the Galaxy had to face one of its chief challengers for league supremacy. Bruce Arena gets his share, for refusing to rotate players not physically ready to play 270 minutes of grueling competition so early in the season. And a little goes to the Galaxy for approving loan deals that kept Donovan and Robbie Keane away from the club until just before the real games began and another that cost them Gonzalez's considerable contributions.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in HDC's press box at halftime of L.A.'s loss Saturday to Real Salt Lake, acknowledged the schedule was unfavorable for the Galaxy but said there was no way around it. Arena admitted his culpability after the RSL game, but he sent out the same lineup for the second leg against Toronto, with at least one player (Sean Franklin) who clearly needed the night off.

The loan deals are something else. Donovan's and Keane's treks to England likely will be a plus for the club in the next few months, but Donovan returned from Liverpool with illness (people do get sick) and is just rearing into form now, some 2 weeks after he got home. Keane needs time to build chemistry with Edson Buddle -- there's little evidence of any right now -- and ought to have done so during preseason.

Gonzalez's brief loan spell to Nuremberg, lasting less than one training session, could be the defining moment of this season. There is no way to adequately replace him within L.A.'s roster, the half-dozen defenders across the league capable of doing so aren't available, and Arena has shown no desire -- or perhaps its economic ability -- to grab someone who can do the job from Europe or South America.

At the moment, Chivas USA's first-choice central tandem -- Heath Pearce and Colombia's John Alexander Valencia -- is superior to the Galaxy's. Meyer could turn out to be great, and the Galaxy need to develop him into a top-notch pro, because Gonzalez isn't going to be around for long. Europe beckons, and it's nearly time to go; Nuremberg wanted to sign him full-time this summer.

“Our job is to get better with what we have,” Donovan said. “If Bruce feels we need [to go out and find a replacement], then it's up to Bruce. But we have the guys capable enough to make the plays that we need to make, and we're not making them right now.”

Should the Galaxy have denied the loan deals? Of course not. Players get hurt; it's part of the game. Sometimes the injuries are more serious, but Gonzalez could have just as easily torn his ACL on the opening day of the Galaxy's preps.

Perhaps Keane's and Donovan's loan deals could have been shorter, perhaps with return dates after the Feb. 12-13 weekend. That might have made a difference in turning all those chances Wednesday night into goals.

The problems, Dunivant said, is “on all of us. This loss isn't because the defense didn't play well, it's not because the offense didn't score goals. It's really because of all those things. I think the whole team can look at ourselves and see what we can do better.”

WORTH NOTING: A mostly reserve lineup is expected for Sunday afternoon's MLS game against D.C. United at Home Depot Center. L.A. then has nearly two weeks until its next match, March 31 against New England. … The scheduled MLS Reserve League game Monday against Vancouver has been postponed, as was last week's reserve opener against Chivas USA. No new date yet. … Toronto FC's Luis Silva reported that he had about 300 family members and friends in the stadium for Wednesday's game. The rookie from East L.A. (a former Salesian High School and UC Santa Barbara star) came on in the 63rd minute and nearly made it 3-1 in the 70th minute, putting an open shot just wide of the left post. “I thought I had it, but I over-hit it,” he said. … Nick Soolsma, who set up Johnson's goal and scored the 67th-minute winner after missing the first leg through suspension, told Canadian broadcaster Rogers Sportsnet: “I think the whole game L.A. was the better team, but our plan was to keep zeros as long as possible and hope for our chances.” … There were about 30 TFC fans stationed at the top of one of the sections in HDC's south end (the numbers seemed to grow as the Reds' triumph neared), and Home Depot Center stationed four security personnel around them.