Los Angeles Soccer: Gregg Berhalter

GALAXY: Trade adds to D, but how much?

April, 10, 2012
CARSON -- The Galaxy's backline travails finally prodded Bruce Arena to make a move, but Tuesday's trade to acquire Brazilian veteran David Junior Lopes from Chivas USA isn't the blockbuster fans were hoping for.

After trolling Europe and South America following Omar Gonzalez's knee injury in January -- and after (we might expect) combing for viable options within Major League Soccer -- the Galaxy has settled, it appears, for a rookie and two rejects from down the hall.

David Junior Lopes
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireIf nothing else, David Junior Lopes, shown above with Chivas USA, will give the Galaxy some bulk on the backline.

If that's harsh, it's also true. Andrew Boyens' option was declined in December by Chivas, and his pickup in the re-entry process -- based on salary as much as anything -- was about adding depth after Gregg Berhalter's retirement and with Leonardo rehabbing a knee injury that will keep him out until at least the end of April. Lopes, who joined the Goats last August after stints in Croatia, Russia, Spain and Romania, had slipped to fourth or fifth on Chivas' depth chart at center back and wasn't on the game-day roster the past three matches.

They're the two most experienced options for the Gonzalez slot, but neither can step into the big Texan's shoes. Neither can Tommy Meyer, selected out of Indiana University with the final pick in the first round of January's MLS SuperDraft -- he has the most upside but the greatest learning curve.

Gonzalez's target date to return is early September, although he hopes to be back earlier, perhaps as soon as July. Until then, the Galaxy (1-3-0 in MLS action, 1-4-1 in all competitive matches) must make do -- and come through.

Arena called Lopes, acquired in exchange for Argentine midfielder Paolo Cardozo, “a big, strong center back” with “good athletic ability” who will provide “a little bit more physicality in that position that we haven't had.” All of that is so, and it's what could make the 29-year-old defender a valuable addition, even if he can't provide the kind of mastery of the position that has brought Gonzalez ample reward: MLS Defender of the Year last season, MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009, Best XI selections in 2010 and 2011.

Lopes is a specimen unlike any the Galaxy have at hand -- 6 feet 3, solidly built, with a physical side to his game that only Gonzalez can exceed. He's outstanding when he's on his game, but his decision-making isn't crisp and he too often commits dumb fouls.

He was ahead of Boyens in the pecking order at Chivas -- Lopes started seven of the Goats' final 11 matches after arriving from Romania's Universitatea Craiova; Boyens, who at 6-4 is taller than Lopes but has not nearly the bulk, saw 45 minutes across 19 games before an injury to Heath Pearce provided starts in the final four games.

Boyens and Meyer have split time next to A.J. DeLaGarza, Gonzalez's usual partner, with less that satisfactory results, although the rookie fared fairly well in last weekend's loss at Sporting Kansas City. One of them figures to get the start Saturday night against Portland at Home Depot Center, but Lopes' physical dimensions probably win out going forward. At least until Leonardo has recovered his form.

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GALAXY: Retired Kirovski joins staff

January, 23, 2012

CARSON -- Jovan Kirovski has moved from one spot on the Galaxy's bench to another, trading in his shorts and cleats to join Bruce Arena's staff following an at-times glorious two-decade playing career.

The veteran midfielder, who spent five seasons in two stints with the Galaxy in an eight-year MLS career that followed spells with big clubs in England, Germany and Portugal, was unveiled as a new assistant coach when L.A. opened its preseason camp Monday at Home Depot Center.

Jovan Kirovski
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJovan Kirovski

“Bruce called me a month ago, put it out there,” said Kirovski, who last season played just 244 minutes over 13 regular-season games and saw action in 21 first-team games, all competitions and friendlies. “Actually, I was really excited, and it was a great opportunity, and I love being around the club. It was a no-brainer for me.”

“I had to get him off the field somehow ...,” joked Arena, who brought Kirovski in as he began his rebuild following the 2008 season. “He's obviously a very experienced guy, he knows our club, he knows the way we do things. He's prepared himself to get into coaching. He's earned his coaching license. I think it's a good transition for Jovan, and I think he'll be a great addition to our staff.”

Kirovski, 35, replaces Gregg Berhalter, who served as player/assistant coach last year, retired as a player at season's end and has become head coach of Swedish club Hammarby.

The son of Macedonian immigrants decided when last season ended that he was done playing, although he never acknowledged so publicly, and Arena's admission last week that he would not be returning to the roster was the first concrete sign he'd retired.

“I thought about it at the end of the year. I knew it was time,” Kirovski said. “I've played the game such a long time, and it was a great way to finish [with a championship]. I knew the time was right.”

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GALAXY: Preseason 2012 quick look

January, 22, 2012

Landon Donovan, David BeckhamVictor Decolongon/Getty ImagesNow that the David Beckham has agreed to return, the Galaxy can calm down and work on their title defense.

CARSON -- David Beckham's signing, made official last week, answered the greatest of offseason questions for the Galaxy. As the club heads into preseason training, with its first on-field session slated for Monday morning at Home Depot Center, there's one more gnawing concern: the backline.

It was defense that made the difference in L.A.'s runs last season to the MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield titles, with Omar Gonzalez's exquisite play at center back setting the tone for a club that tied the Major League Soccer record for shutouts, with 17, and added five more in the playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League.

The torn anterior cruciate ligament Gonzalez sustained on Jan. 5, in his first practice following a short-term loan deal to Germany's FC Nuremberg, leaves a massive hole in the middle of the Galaxy's backline, and how they deal with it will have much influence on what they achieve in 2012.

Here's a quick look at the Galaxy as their campaign begins:


Best Galaxy team in history? Oh, yeah. (Sorry, '96ers.) In MLS annals? Hard to argue. They amassed 67 points (most of the post-shootout era) on a 19-5-10 campaign, was the only club in a remarkably balanced league that conceded less than a goal per game, cruised to the Supporters' Shield (as regular-season champ, quietly the most meaningful of MLS's prizes), then went 4-0 through the playoffs, capping the campaign with a 1-0 triumph over Houston, not nearly so close, in an MLS Cup final played before the home fans.

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GALAXY: McLeish admits Keane push

January, 5, 2012

Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish on Thursday finally confirmed what everybody already knew, that he's trying to sign Galaxy forward Robbie Keane on a two-month loan deal.

McLeish is looking to bolster a Villa attack that has scored just 22 goals in 20 games, the sixth-worst total in the 20-team English Premier League.

“We're having a look at it and trying to pursue it, so that's the latest, although nothing is actually done and dusted as yet,” McLeish told reporters. “If we don't know by Monday, then it'll probably be not done. That's why I don't want to say too much, in case it doesn't happen, but we're certainly pursuing it, and at the moment both parties are keen.”

Keane, an Irish striker who signed with the Galaxy in August, is training with his former club Tottenham through Jan. 20. British wire service The Press Association reported that Villa would pay nearly $775,000 to the Galaxy.

WORTH NOTING: Nothing official on David Beckham's new contract with the Galaxy is expected for another week or so, but new Paris Saint-Germain coach Carlo Ancelotti -- who was in charge at AC Milan during the English star's first Serie A loan stint -- says he's staying with L.A. “We had the possibility to have Beckham,” Ancelotti told reporters after PSG returned to Paris following a winter break in the Middle East. “But Beckham decided to stay in Los Angeles because his family requested him.” Reports have Ancelotti now looking to bring in forward Ivorian forward Didier Drogba. ... Reports in Sweden claim former Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter's next signing as Hammarby's head coach likely will be forward Billy Schuler, who turned down a Generation adidas contract from Major League Soccer after helping North Carolina to the NCAA title.

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No. 1: Galaxy win everything

January, 1, 2012

Landon DonovanAP Photo/Bret HartmanThe Galaxy closed out their illustrious 2011 season with a victory in the MLS Cup final.

Counting down the 11 biggest 2011 stories in Southern California soccer ...

The Galaxy have had some sensational years since they first kicked a ball back in 1996. That inaugural season was something, and '98, too, and '99, the titles in 2002 and '05, the 2009 turnaround.

Nothing like what they experienced in 2011.

L.A. won everything that matters, did everything they sought to do, and they did so in a spotlight that shone more brightly than any had illuminated Major League Soccer's first 15 seasons. They did so with charm, grit and verve through superb efforts by superstars and role players all orchestrated by America's best coach -- Bruce Arena -- doing his best work.

The Galaxy romped to their second straight Supporters' Shield, the regular-season championship, setting a post-shootout era points record with 63 (from a 19-5-10 record), then swept four playoff matches -- with a masterful performance before the home fans to beat Houston in the final -- to claim the franchise's third MLS Cup championship. Through one four-month, 20-game stretch, they lost just one league game.

From August on, they pressed through the best quartet in the CONCACAF Champions League's second stage, capturing the Group A title with dramatic, must-win victories over Mexico's Morelia and at Motagua in Honduras. They'll be big favorites in their quarterfinal series against Toronto FC in March.

They tied an MLS single-season mark with 17 shutouts, with two more in the playoffs and three in the Champions League, despite season-long injury struggles that sidelined nearly every major player at some point and played particular havoc at the back.

The stars came up huge. David Beckham, drawing greater attention in the final season of his five-year contract, was magnificent at the center of the Galaxy's attack. Landon Donovan netted 17 goals in all despite a quad injury that slowed him considerably the final three months of the season. Robbie Keane's August arrival, accompanied by Juan Pablo Angel's departure, provided a quality finisher with great vision and a knack for opening up the tightest spaces.

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GALAXY: Franklin, four others sign

December, 23, 2011

The Galaxy got one big postseason mission out of the way Friday, re-signing defender/midfielder Sean Franklin while collecting signatures from three others and exercising an option they previously, but not irrevocably, had declined.

Defender/midfielder Bryan Jordan also re-signed, and the Galaxy wrapped up deals with forward Pat Noonan, whose rights were acquired from Seattle in last week's second-stage re-entry draft, and goalkeeper Nick Noble, who has spent the past two seasons in Sweden.

Also back is forward Adam Cristman, who had pulled out of Major League Soccer's re-entry process after the option on his contract, worth only the league minimum of $42,000 last year (but with a salary boost anticipated), was initially declined.

Franklin (Palmdale/Highland HS and Cal State Northridge), 26, the 2008 MLS Rookie of the Year and an MLS All-Star Game starter last summer, is the big news. He's among the best right backs in MLS and is probably better as a right-sided midfielder, which is where he'll likely play if Landon Donovan is paired with Robbie Keane on L.A.'s forward line.

Jordan (Temple City/Temple City HS), 26, who has been with the Galaxy since 2008, is a backup, primarily as an outside back, who played in 18 first-team and eight MLS Reserve League games last season. Cristman, 26, a big, physical, hard-working forward, scored eight goals in 33 games, including Reserve League, after arriving in a trade last January.

Noonan, 31, was one of four players the Galaxy selected from other rosters during the second-stage draft in the re-entry process. He's scored 46 goals in 10 MLS seasons, but only four in the last five injury-filled campaigns. He played just 259 minutes across nine games with the Sounders last season.

Noble, 27, was Chicago's first-round draft pick in 2007, when Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan was the Fire boss, but he never saw league action before his June 2009 release. He played briefly with the second-tier Austin Aztex before taking off to Sweden, where he's spent the past two seasons, making 59 first-team appearances, at second-division Ljungskile SK.

Noble is the third goalkeeper on the Galaxy roster, joining Josh Saunders and Brian Perk. The Galaxy also selected Jon Conway from Chicago in the second-stage re-entry draft, but Noble's signing might signal that the club, which won't carry more than three netminders, doesn't plan to bring in Conway.

BECKHAM IN DOHA?: Agence France-Presse reports that David Beckham will attend the Qatar ATP Open tennis tournament in Doha right after New Year's and could sign with Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain at that time.

The tournament runs Jan. 2-8 and the president of Qatar's tennis federation is Nasser Al-Kelaifi, who also is president of PSG. Al-Kelaifi heads Qatar Sports Investments, a quasi-governmental outfit that is the French club's primary shareholder.

ELSEWHERE: Other MLS news ...
  • Midfielder Baggio Husidic, whom Colorado drafted from Chicago in the second-stage re-entry draft, is former Galaxy defender/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter's first signing with Hammarby in Sweden.
  • New England signed midfielder Clyde Simms, which it acquired from D.C. United during the second-stage draft.

GALAXY: Sao Paulo wants Juninho

December, 22, 2011
Juninho's time in Southern California might be over amid reports that Sao Paulo plans to keep him after two years' seasoning with the Galaxy.

The 22-year-old midfielder, who played a prominent role in L.A.'s successes this season in Major League Soccer and the CONCACAF Champions League, earlier this week signed a three-year contract extension with the Brazilian giant, which had loaned him to the Galaxy the past two years.

The Galaxy had been trying to acquire Juninho, who in November said he wanted to stay in L.A.

Fabio Mello, the player's agent, told Brazil's Globo media group that the club plans to use Juninho in its first team “and we agreed for him to stay.”

Galaxy coach/general manager Bruce Arena has not responded to requests earlier this week for comment, and he was not available Thursday.

L.A. could lose both of its starting central midfielders in the space of a week. David Beckham, Juninho's partner in the middle, must decide whether to re-sign with the Galaxy or accept a lucrative offer from Paris Saint-Germain.

Arena already has lined up once replacement, acquiring Brazilian Marcelo Sarvas from Costa Rican power Alajuelense.

UPDATE (7:45 p.m.): Juninho has confirmed, via his Twitter account, that he will be playing for Sao Paulo. In successive posts, he tweeted, “I want to thank Galaxy and all of my fans for your kindness and support for the past two years that I was on the team” and “I will always have a place for you in my heart. I want to let you know that I have decided to re-sign with Sao Paulo fc.”

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GALAXY: Berhalter heads to Hammarby

December, 12, 2011

Gregg Berhalter's Galaxy connections, obviously, have paved the road toward his first professional head-coaching job, but he dives headlong into a sizable challenge with wisdom gained from a career spent largely in Europe.

Berhalter was hired Monday as Hammarby IF's new coach, assigned to return the Stockholm club to Sweden's top-tier Allsvenskan, and those who question the decision based on his inexperience aren't going to get an argument.

“I don't fight it,” Berhalter said Monday from Stockholm following a news conference for Swedish media. “It's true, I'm inexperienced. What I do bring is fresh ideas and a lot of energy. And every coach has had a first game. There has to be a beginning, and this is it.”

Berhalter, 38, takes the reins the first week of January, with the 2012 season slated to begin in early spring, and he says his season as assistant coach on Galaxy boss Bruce Arena's staff has made a difference. But in a sport in which Americans are still viewed with some skepticism, his time abroad -- 15 years in Holland, England and Germany -- means the most.

“My experience [playing] in America has been nothing but first class in terms of being with the Galaxy and being with Bruce and learning from him,” said Berhalter, who holds Class A coaching licenses from the German and U.S. federations. “But it was a brief time. Most of my time was in Europe, in terms of my career and shaping my ideas about soccer. It's more European pedigree than the American kind of thing.”

How much that means to Hammarby is uncertain. It's a old club, formed in 1889, with a passionate, largely working-class following but limited success. The team won its only Allsvenskan title in 2001 and has spent the past two seasons in the second-tier Superettan, narrowly avoiding the relegation playoffs with an 11th-place finish in the season that ended in October.

“I hope he does real well,” said Arena, who coached Berhalter with the 2002 and 2006 U.S. World Cup teams and brought him to Galaxy from 1860 Munich at the start of the 2009 Major League Soccer season. “We think it's real important. ... It's a team that's been floundering, that went to the last day of the season to stay up in the second division. They've expressed an interest in Gregg. We think the world of Gregg, and he has a great future in coaching, and we want to do everything on our end to support that move.

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GALAXY: Is Berhalter Sweden-bound

December, 9, 2011

Gregg Berhalter might not be on Bruce Arena's staff next season, after all.

The veteran defender, who wrapped up his playing career on the Galaxy's postseason tour of Asia and Australia, could be Swedish club Hammarby IF's next head coach.

Fotbollskanalen, a Swedish soccer website, reported that Berhalter, 38, is in final talks with the Stockholm-based club, of which Galaxy owner Anschutz Entertainment Group controls 49 percent. The website said Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo had been considered the frontrunner for the position.

Berhalter, who was part of two U.S. World Cup teams, in 2002 and 2006, and played 15 seasons in Europe before joining the Galaxy at the start of the 2009 Major League Soccer season, doubled as an assistant coach to Arena this year. He was limited by injuries to 10 league games -- and 18 first-team games of any sort -- in his final season.

Hammarby chairman Kent Hertzell told the website a decision has not yet been made but that he hoped to announce something next week. He acknowledged that Galaxy academy director Chris Klein, a former L.A. midfielder who retired following the 2010 season, had assisted in a search for a coach.

Asked if Berhalter was the choice, he said he “cannot say yes or no on any names at this time.”

GALAXY: Beckham puts on a show

December, 3, 2011

If this is the end of David Beckham with the Galaxy, he's putting on quite an encore.

Beckham scored a sweet goal, set up another on a corner kick, saw another from a terrific cross flagged offside and nearly tallied with a midfield rocket as L.A. poured it on in Manila, romping to a 6-1 victory over the Philippines' national team on the second stop of its three-game Pacific tour.

Robbie Keane added a goal and an assist, Adam Cristman came off the bench to score a couple, playoff hero Mike Magee netted one,and Gregg Berhalter, whose playing career will close with Tuesday's friendly in Australia, converted a late penalty kick.

Beckham, who will decide after the postseason tour whether he'll re-sign with the Galaxy or head back to Europe -- almost certainly to Paris Saint-Germain -- walked off in the 76th minute to a standing ovation, trotted to the edge of the stands at Rizal Memorial Stadium and handed his jersey to boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.

The Galaxy, fortunate to be ahead at halftime through Beckham in the 20th minute and Magee in the 39th, scored four second-half goals on a hot, humid evening, using an attacking pace that the Philippine players could not combat.

There was talent in the home side, especially the England-born and -bred Younghusband brothers -- Phil and James -- whose performances might be worthy of a trial back at Home Depot Center. They caused havoc along the Galaxy backline, scoring one goal and nearly creating another that would have erased L.A.'s early advantage.

Phil Younghusband twisted A.J. DeLaGarza to score from Angel Guirado's chip following a Galaxy turnover in the 41st minute. Two minutes later, James Younghusband's through ball left Carlos Alberto Martinez de Murga one-on-one with Josh Saunders, but his shot slipped past the left post.

The Galaxy nearly went ahead after 15 minutes, when Beckham noticed goalkeeper Ed Sacapaņo off his line and blasted toward the net from the midfield stripe. It was a line drive that the Phillipine keeper would not have gotten to had it not been a shade high.

Beckham got his goal five minutes later on a quick counter following a Sean Franklin takeaway near the top of their box.

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GALAXY: L.A. answered the challenges

November, 27, 2011

Galaxy celebrateKelvin Kuo/US PresswireThe 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 ...

  • He got the best of David Beckham -- fabulous in his first full campaign with L.A. -- and a very good piece of Landon Donovan, the quad injury-slowed stretch drive aside.
  • He dumped an underachieving star forward (Juan Pablo Angel) for a European star (Irishman Robbie Keane), adding dimensions to his attack just as the season's pace started to accelerate.
  • He engineered career-best performances from three defenders (Omar Gonzalez, Todd Dunivant and A.J. DeLaGarza) and a couple of midfielders (Mike Magee and Juninho), all making significant contributions.
  • He stuck with his backup goalkeeper (Josh Saunders), who emerged as a real force during No. 1 netminder Donovan Ricketts' injury absence.
  • And he bred uncommon consistency from his squad, no matter that there was little consistency to the lineup until the postseason arrived.

“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.

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Bruce Arena's work isn't done

November, 19, 2011

CARSON -- The first instinct was to flee.

That's how bad the Galaxy were when Bruce Arena arrived in Los Angeles back in August 2008 to discuss a rebuild of a rusting giant, a once-proud champion that had descended into circus fare during a woeful nine months under Dutch icon Ruud Gullit's stewardship.

“When I came in and looked at the team,” Arena says now, gleam in his eye, “I thought about maybe going back home again. Going back to the East Coast.”

He followed his second instinct instead, found nice digs near the ocean, then dug in, meticulously transforming the Galaxy from punchline to powerhouse. That path has led here, to Sunday's MLS Cup final against the Houston Dynamo at Home Depot Center -- and a potential coronation, whatever it's worth, as “greatest Major League Soccer team of them all.”

Bruce Arena
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesBruce Arena and Landon Donovan celebrate the Western Conference championship earlier this month.

That designation means nothing to Arena, 60, but winning the championship is everything. It was in the blueprint the moment he decided not to turn and run.

“The goal was to bring the Galaxy back where we could compete for championships, so I guess the blueprint has been partially successful,” he said this week. “To get it right requires a win on Sunday. If we win on Sunday, I think we have the blueprint right.”

Arena's accomplishments are legend in American soccer. He won five NCAA championships at Virginia, guided D.C. United to the first two MLS Cup crowns (plus a CONCACAF Champions' Cup title), then directed the U.S. national team through its most successful eight-year span, highlighted by a quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup. He was inducted last year into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

What he's done in L.A. perhaps tops everything else. He took a franchise at its lowest point and in 15 months had it playing for a title. The next two seasons -- last and this -- were rewarded with Supporters' Shields, for winning regular-season titles. Now the club's third MLS Cup championship sits 90 minutes away.

“Everybody knows I'm a big believer in Bruce,” says Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo, who played for Arena at Virginia and with D.C. and was one of his assistants with the national team. “It's not the first time I've said he's the best in the business. And he just is. He's proven it time and time again in a league that's extremely difficult, where there's enormous parity. The fact that his teams have been in first place basically for two years running, it's just a remarkable accomplishment.”

Arena this season guided the Galaxy to that second Shield (with 19 victories and modern-era record 67 points), into CONCACAF's Champions League (as the only non-Mexican group winner) and through three tight playoff games, all victories, against teams every bit as talented as his. He's done this while refashioning the attack; enduring dozens of injuries, to nearly every important player on the roster; and herding the team through an exhausting series of games, two a week for most of two months, during the season's final stretch.

It's been, says associate head coach Dave Sarachan, who has worked alongside Arena for many of the past 27 years, “by far his best work.”

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GALAXY: Saunders is a net gain

November, 13, 2011

Josh SaundersJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJosh Saunders came to MLS in 2003, but it really wasn't until this season that he has played consistently at the top level.

CARSON -- If it seems Josh Saunders has come from nowhere to save the Galaxy again and again this season, Landon Donovan understands.

The Galaxy's No. 2 goalkeeper had seen far more action from the bench than in between the posts during his Major League Soccer career, at least before Donovan Ricketts ran into one thing after another. When opportunity fell his way, Saunders latched hold.

On a team filled with unsung heroes, Saunders might be the most pivotal on L.A.'s path to next Sunday's MLS Cup final against the Houston Dynamo at Home Depot Center. He has backed steady play with phenomenal reflex saves, winning the No. 1 job in the nets -- even with Ricketts healthy again.

Saunders has played every minute in 21 of L.A.'s last 24 competitive matches, taking the reins from MLS's 2010 Goalkeeper of the Year and providing a foundation for the Galaxy's run to a second straight Supporters' Shield, first place in their CONCACAF Champions League group, and through three postseason victories.

“For most people watching, this is sort of an aberration and came out of nowhere,” said Donovan, the Galaxy's captain. “We've seen it for years. ... Over the last two years, he's as good as [Ricketts] is in every way. It was just a matter of him getting his chance.”

He has been rock-steady and often brilliant since that chance arrived, with Ricketts' departure at the end of May for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and his broken arm in his first game upon returning in late June. Saunders played nearly twice as many games this season than Ricketts, all competitions, and posted a 0.93 MLS goals-against average -- second-best in the league, to Ricketts' 0.77 -- while rarely conceding anything remotely soft.

“Confidence has been a big thing,” said Saunders, 30, who bounced in and out of MLS for several years before Bruce Arena brought him in shortly after taking L.A.'s reins near the end of the 2008 season. “Consistency with playing week in and week out the past part of the season has helped. That just brings a little more of a comfort level, where you feel more comfortable catching balls or accepting back passes and playing them out. It makes things seem a little cleaner.”

BIG SAVES: He has been clean. Just ask Chad Marshall, whose header should have lifted Columbus past L.A. in September. Or Patrick Nyarko, who might have given Chicago the points that pointed toward the playoffs if not for Saunders. Or Joel Lindpere, who watched helplessly as Saunders somehow slapped away his volley to preserve the Galaxy's lead in the playoff opener. Or another few dozen shooters in MLS, Mexico and Central America left shaking their heads.

“Josh has been in the background for the last couple of years,” noted veteran defender/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, “but every time he's played, he's done well, and every time he's played, you hear the same things from us, that there's not much of a difference when [Ricketts] is in there or Josh is in there. We feel just as comfortable -- and you're seeing it now. The guy's a very talented goalkeeper.

“Think of the situations he's been in, having to come off the bench or [not playing for] six weeks and coming in. This guy's been through everything, and he's resilient, and he shows what a class act he is and what a good goalkeeper he is, and we've been saying that for years.”

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GALAXY: No Davis? We'll see

November, 9, 2011

Brad Davis Brett Davis/US PresswireAs far as Brad Davis not playing in MLS Cup, the Galaxy say they'll believe it when they see it.

CARSON -- The Houston Dynamo are chirping about how they can, and will, win Major League Soccer's championship without Brad Davis, the expected league MVP, who will sit out the Nov. 20 title game at Home Depot Center because of a torn quadriceps muscle.

The Galaxy aren't sure Davis won't be in orange.

“I think that until he's not playing, until he's not on the field in the final, we're still thinking he's going to play, most likely,” said Galaxy defender/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter. “I would have to personally check him to believe that he's not going to give it everything he's got to play in that game. So we'll see.”

Davis says he's done after tearing his right quadriceps in Houston's victory at Sporting Kansas City in Sunday's Eastern Conference final, and his absence alters how the Dynamo approach nearly everything. He's the primary distributor, delivering on-target crosses and penetrating through balls, the player around whom the attack revolves.

“It hurts losing him,” Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall told The Houston Chronicle. “But at the same time, I feel like we have a deep team. We have a team of dangerous players, and I think we've proven that even without Brad.”

But losing Davis is “huge,” said Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez.

“He has a great left foot, and he puts the ball where he wants it ...,” MLS's Defender of the Year said. “He's probably been their best player, and they're going to miss him. It sucks that he won't play in this game, because it'll make for a better game, but I'm sure they'll have someone serving in balls that are just as good. If someone puts in a decent cross, they have guys who can get on the end of it.”

Said Berhalter: “They're a very organized team, they're a very physical team, they know exactly what they want to do and how they're going to do it. They never give up, and they're very determined. We don't take them lightly at all. We think they're experienced, they're well-organized and they fight for everything. It's going to be a very difficult game. It's not going to be easy.”

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GALAXY: Top defender is ready for U.S.

November, 9, 2011

Omar GonzalezDavid Banks/Getty ImagesOmar Gonzalez says he's focused on MLS Cup and not yet thinking about getting an invitation to U.S. national team camp.

CARSON -- He was Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year in 2009, a Best XI selection last year, and now he's MLS's Defender of the Year.

What more does Omar Gonzalez need to do to make the U.S. national team?

That question was posed to the Galaxy's 6-foot-5 Texan just a few minutes after word came down that he'd won the league's top defensive honor, and Gonzalez, who has made it clear he wants to play for Jurgen Klinsmann, didn't flinch.

“I have no idea,” he said. “I haven't talked to the coaches at all. I'm just worried about winning this MLS Cup and worrying about getting better. I think if I worry about the right things, good things will come. I just have to keep on getting better, and, hopefully, they will notice.”

MLS's best-defender honor, richly reserved, is a good thing, “another step in his development,” in coach Bruce Arena's words, and reward for everyone else whose contributions gave L.A. the league's best record, with fewest goals conceded and 17 shutouts, tying the MLS regular-season mark.

“He deserves it. He's been our rock this year,” said veteran center back/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, Gonzalez's primary mentor in his first three years as a pro. “Add to it the offensive quality, in scoring the goals, and his dominance in the air and his presence and the type of year he's had. I'm really proud of him. He's come a long way.

“And not only that, his consistency has been there this year. That's the one thing that's improved from last year. He's been steady the whole year. ... We're excited for him, we're extremely proud of him, and it's a great honor for all of us that he won.”

Gonzalez, who will lead the Galaxy backline in the Nov. 20 MLS Cup final against Houston at Home Depot Center, outpointed fellow finalists Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, both from Real Salt Lake. The same trio was up for the award last year, and Olave won it.

“I was pretty pumped about it,” he said. “This is a huge award, and it's a great accolade for me personally, to be in my third year here in this league. ... I put a lot of hard work into going into this year, and the hard work paid off, and I'm just really excited and happy that I won this.”

Gonzalez, a first-round draft pick in 2009 out of Maryland, made an impact from his first day in the league, with his size and earnestness, but under Berhalter's and the Galaxy staff's tutelage he has evolved into a multilayered defender whose physical tools have been amplified by a growing facility with the ball -- he and Berhalter worked together on technical areas during the offseason -- and a broader understanding of the game and its tactics.

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