Los Angeles Soccer: Omar Gonzalez
CARSON, Calif. -- Josh Saunders punted the ball away as soon as he got two hands firmly on it, but it was too late.
The Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper let a controversial free kick slip from his hands and into his net in stoppage time, giving the San Jose Earthquakes a 1-0 advantage just 90 seconds before the final whistle of the first leg of the teams' Western Conference semifinal series. To advance and defend their 2011 MLS Cup title, the Galaxy will have to beat San Jose by two goals in the return leg in the Bay Area on Wednesday (8 p.m. PT, ESPN2).
After Marcelo Sarvas fouled San Jose substitute Simon Dawkins, Earthquakes center back Victor Bernardez delivered a low ball with pace that deflected off the left foot of Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez and spun just before it reached the Saunders.
He appeared to touch the ball with both hands as he dove left, but a final bounce pushed the ball below his left shoulder and into the net.
The Galaxy disputed the foul call afterward, with forward Landon Donovan saying he suspected referee Ricardo Salazar would "probably say it was a mistake."
"If that's a foul in this game, then there's a hundred fouls," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said in a testy postgame news conference.
Los Angeles appeared in control for most of the match, never coming particularly close to a goal until the final half-hour but maintaining possession the majority of the time.
"It was never a game you would think that we would lose," Donovan said afterward. "We probably weren't sharp enough in the offensive third of the field, but at worst we thought we'd go up there 0-0 and just have to get a goal."
The two teams have played to some dramatic finishes this season, with a combined 15 goals in three previous matches and a lead change in every one. As is typical for leadoff legs under MLS rules, both teams seemed fairly content to make Wednesday's match the decider.
Now, the Galaxy need a dominating performance from Saunders on Wednesday at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara and at least two goals from their attack. The Earthquakes lost just one of their 34 regular-season games by two or more goals this year, and none at home.
CARSON -- The Galaxy are deep into their transition from woeful underachievers to Major League Soccer title contenders, and although the cast of contributors is steadily growing -- just like last year -- it's the three Designated Players who have made the difference.
It was so again Saturday night, when L.A. pounded archrival Chivas USA, 3-1, as Landon Donovan scored a pair of goals, Robbie Keane added another plus an assist, and David Beckham picked up two assists in front of 25,180 at Home Depot Center.
The Galaxy (9-10-3, 30 points) have won six of nine games since returning in mid-June from Major League Soccer's three-week World Cup qualifying break -- they probably should have won the three they didn't -- to cement their hold on fifth place in the Western Conference, building a seven-point cushion on the Goats (6-8-5, 23 points) and eight on Colorado (7-13-1, 22 points). Fifth place, of course, gets the final playoff berth.
“We're getting there,” said Donovan, who netted his eighth and ninth goals of the season and his sixth and seventh in the past nine games. “We've gotten better and better. ... I think we're getting there. I think we're starting to figure out what combination of guys on the field play well together and work well, and a lot of guys are doing a lot of dirty work to make plays so that the few of us can just focus on getting in front of the goal and scoring.”
The Galaxy has 22 goals in their last eight games after scoring just 16 in their first 14, and Donovan, Keane and Beckham have scored 17 of them (with 12 assists, too). They're more explosive than they were at any point in last year's championship run, and if the defensive lapses can be conquered -- Omar Gonzalez saw his second action of the season, a real plus in this regard -- L.A. might be the team to beat again come November.
Keane scored in the 14th minute from a Beckham through ball, netted another six minutes later from Donovan's through ball -- that one was waved off by an offside call that replays suggested was in error -- then fed Donovan's sprint for the second goal three minutes into the second half. Donovan, who twice hit posts, secured all three points from a scramble following a Beckham corner kick in the 78th minute.
“I think [Keane and Donovan] combined for a number of opportunities tonight and were outstanding, and certainly David as well with that group ...” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “We're scoring an awful lot of goals [with Donovan partnering Keane at forward], right? It's been pretty damn good. It really has.”
Former Galaxy midfielder Paolo Cardozo scored his first MLS goal in the 52nd minute for Chivas, firing just inside the right post from the top of the box with L.A. goalkeeper Josh Saunders screened from the shot. Chivas had more chances, but none of them particularly dangerous.
Robbie Keane celebrated his 32nd birthday Sunday with two goals to end a two-game Galaxy skid and restore some of the momentum from that three-game run a couple of weeks ago.
The Irishman might have had a third, but two was more than enough for L.A., which again channeled last year's model in grinding out a 2-0 Major League Soccer victory at Chicago to climb back to fifth place in the Western Conference.
It was all about defense, and the Galaxy (7-10-2, 23 points)-- its usual back four on the field, Omar Gonzalez sent to the bench -- gave its finest defensive performance of the season, keeping things tight at the back and eliminating space for the Fire's vibrant attack, then took its chances well.
“It was a good win ...,” head coach Bruce Arena told media at Toyota Park. “I think we had a good plan coming into the game, and we played pretty solid for 90 minutes. It wasn’t our best game, but it was good enough for three points. But it was a good effort by the group.”
The Galaxy was without David Beckham, serving the second game of a suspension, and Landon Donovan started on the bench after picking up a hamstring strain in Wednesday's loss to Philadelphia, but they prospered through Keane's strikes -- his fifth and sixth goals of the season -- and two superb second-half saves by Josh Saunders.
Keane wasn't particularly sharp, but he drew a questionable first-half penalty to give the Galaxy the lead and finished after some superb work by Donovan in midfield for the second goal with a dozen minutes plus stoppage to play, and that was enough.
“You get the ball to that guy anywhere near the goal, he's going to score more often than not,” said Donovan, who was a spark after coming off the bench in the 65th minute.
Keane converted a 24th-minute penalty kick, firing in off the right post, after his cross from just left of Chicago's box caught defender Jalil Anibaba's hand on the edge of the box. It was clearly an infraction, but Anibaba's arm might have been outside the box when contact was made.
The Fire had more of the ball -- 60 percent possession -- and managed 14 shots and 10 corner kicks, but they couldn't create space for speedy forward Dominic Oduro, who departed after 66 frustrating minutes, nor winger Patrick Nyarko. The shutout was L.A.'s third in the past six games.
“They're good attacking players, and we're certainly aware of their speed,” Arena said. “What your trying to do is keep them in front of you as much as you can. I think our backline did a good job for the most part.”
So his rapid-fire move from full training (with teammates not fully challenging him) to 45 mostly do-nothing minutes against the club's Academy players to activation from the MLS Disabled List to the Fourth of July starting lineup was somewhat of a surprise.
There had been hints: He was said to be advancing rapidly in his rehabilitation from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he sustained in January, and AEG President Tim Leiweke teased at an event in mid-March that the reigning MLS Defender of the Year would be back sooner than expected.
Gonzalez got 45 solid minutes in Wednesday's loss against Philadelphia and could be back in the starting XI for Saturday afternoon's game at Chicago, a pivotal clash after back-to-back losses following that eye-opening three-game winning streak.
The Fire (8-5-4), who won three in a row and then claimed a point at Houston, are among Major League Soccer's swiftest and most talented attacking sides, and theirs is a challenge Gonzalez might not yet be ready for.
He didn't have a whole lot to do in his first-half appearance against Philadelphia, so his time was more about getting reacquainted to the game than taking command of a backline that has missed his dearly.
“It was kind of nice [not to be tested],” an ebullient Gonzalez said after the game. “[Philadelphia] decided to sit back a little bit and just kind of go for the counterattack, and we had everything locked down pretty good.”
He said could've played “like 10 more minutes, but we decided to stick to the plan ... you don't want to play too many minutes. This is sort of a kind of progression, so this game I got 45 minutes. Maybe next game I get 60 and you go from there.”
Gonzalez is the most talented and one of the biggest (at 6 feet 5), most physical and, certainly last year, most savvy center backs in MLS, and L.A. has struggled defensively without him. There are other processes at work there, but his absence -- and the impact of that absence on confidence -- has been the defining element of a poor first half to the season.
CARSON -- Omar Gonzalez was back on the field, and the Galaxy so dominated portions of the action Wednesday night that they should have been fairly certain of a victory well before halftime arrived.
Those were the pluses from the annual Fourth of July festivities at Home Depot Center, but they were greatly outnumbered by all that went wrong: squandered chances, defensive breakdowns, an inability to close out halves.
It all added up to a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia that, following last weekend's collapse against San Jose, has all but erased the glowing memories of the three-game winning streak that suggested the old Galaxy, the championship Galaxy, was back.
SoCal boy Michael Farfan set up one goal and scored the other, netting the winner five minutes into second-half stoppage, to give the Union (4-9-2, 14 points) their first win in five meetings with L.A. (6-10-2, 20 points), which kept pace with fifth-place Colorado in the Western Conference but lost ground to Real Salt Lake, Seattle and Vancouver, which sit second through fourth.
“The reality is we should be five wins in a row right now, and now we find ourselves behind the eight-ball a little bit again,” captain Landon Donovan said. “It's difficult to take, but the reality is now it's over. We can either moan about it or we can wake up tomorrow morning and get ready for [Sunday's game at] Chicago.”
The Galaxy created more than a half-dozen outstanding chances but managed to stick just one of them, Chad Barrett's 73rd-minute equalizer after Robbie Keane got the slightest of touches to a feed from Todd Dunivant. It wasn't nearly enough.
Keane ought to have had a hat trick in the first 25 minutes, David Junior Lopes hit the crossbar in the second half, and had David Beckham not been stuck in a luxury box -- next to Chelsea's Frank Lampard, rumored to be in L.A.'s sights -- following his foolish red card in the loss to San Jose, the Galaxy might have gotten something out of two late, close-range free kicks, one of them in the semicircle.
Keane's first two chances -- after pushing through two defenders at the top of the box, then beating goalkeeper Zac MacMath on the dribble in the fourth minute, then after stepping past MacMath to the left of the net in the 11th -- were cleared off the goal line, by Carlos Valdes and then Sheanon Williams. His third, a blast inside the box in the 25th, was parried by MacMath, who faced 16 shots but had to make just four saves.
“We gave the game away,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “That's a game we should have walked away comfortably with three points, in my opinion. Too many chances in the first half that were wasted. Poor concentration at the end of the first half cost us a goal. And just an extremely poor effort at the end of the game to get exposed and to give up the point we worked so hard to get.”
CARSON -- It's time for the Galaxy's annual Fourth of July festivities, but David Beckham is a no-show after some fireworks last weekend. Might Omar Gonzalez's return make up for his absence?
L.A.'s biggest name will miss Wednesday night's match against the Philadelphia Union at Home Depot Center after picking up a stoppage-time yellow card in last weekend's loss at San Jose, but Gonzalez has been activated from MLS's Disabled List and will be available for the game.
Beckham's caution was his sixth of the season and triggered an automatic one-game suspension for accumulation, and more games on the sideline could be coming later this week.
As the Galaxy starts to awaken from their slumber -- they took a three-game winning streak, marked by diversely strong performances, into Saturday night's defeat -- the last thing they need is the man who runs their attack sitting games out.
“Any time you lose your best player, it's going to hurt,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said as L.A. prepared for Philly. “It's part of the game, but we obviously wish we had him. We've got guys who will step in and do a good job.”
It was inevitable that Beckham would serve a yellow-card suspension -- he did so twice last year -- after picking up four yellow cards in a six-game span during April and May. The fifth means a one-game ban, and Beckham had erased one of his with three clean games before picking up cards in each of the last two games.
“Actually, David started the season with a lot of cards right in the beginning, and I think he's done fairly well since then,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “Certainly, when you start off with four yellow cards in the first four games, or close to it, you're going to be dealing with suspension at some point.”
Arena is mistaken on the specifics: Beckham didn't pick up his first caution until L.A.'s seventh game and has been carded six times in his last 10 league appearances. Saturday's card was totally unnecessary.
Beckham, frustrated as Sam Cronin sat prone in front of the Earthquakes' goal during a stoppage, seemingly trying to waste away the game's final seconds, twice booted balls from the left wing toward the San Jose midfielder. The second ball struck Cronin and ricocheted off referee Hilario Grajeda, who pulled the yellow.
In the pushing and shoving that ensued, Beckham got to face-to-face with a couple of Quakes, at one point lowering his head into that of Quakes midfielder Rafael Baca, the former Loyola Marymount All-American from Lawndale. When the final whistle blew moments later, Beckham had to be prevented from going after San Jose midfielder Khari Stephenson.
Robert Mora/L.A. Galaxy
Defender Omar Gonzalez saw his first scrimmage action of the year Monday.
CARSON -- Omar Gonzalez is back on the training field, doing pretty much everything everybody else is doing, and that might be the best news the Galaxy has had since David Beckham decided to stick around.
Gonzalez, Major League Soccer's 2011 Defender of the Year, was sidelined after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee back in January during his first practice session of a short-term loan with German club FC Nuremberg. He now is targeting the end of this month or a little later for his return to the real games, but he found himself in a game situation for the first time Monday morning.
Gonzalez, the 6-foot-5 Texan whose presence on the back was crucial during the Galaxy's MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield title campaigns last year, played all of a 45-minute scrimmage against the Galaxy's U-17/18 Academy side.
It didn't mean a whole lot, except to Gonzalez.
“Today was just to see how I am and how my fitness is coming along,” he said after the first team, largely a group of reserves, claimed a 3-1 victory on L.A.'s training field at Home Depot Center. “I got a little bit tired towards the end, and we’re playing against our Academy, so I didn’t have to get up for a lot of headers or do a lot of defending. So for the most part, I think I did well. But I wasn’t really tested.
“All in all, I'd say it was a pretty good day.”
Gonzalez, 23, was hurt Jan. 5 in Turkey when he knocked knees with German-born American defender Timmy Chandler and underwent surgery eight days later in Santa Monica.
“The knee feels great,” he said. “Some spots are a little tender, but I think it's still the overall healing process going on. Once I'm out there, I don’t have any restrictions. I just get after it and get into tackles. There’s really nothing else stopping me other than making sure that we hit close to the six-, seven-month mark and making sure that it’s fully healed.”
He's been training nearly full speed for about 2½ weeks, and the limitations were gone last week ... not that teammates are willing to test him too strenuously.
“I know that they haven't been that hard at me in practice,” Gonzalez said. “I can sense that they're a bit hesitant to come in hard, which is great for me.
“When I'm ready and they're ready, then we can get after it.”
There are so many iconic moments from California Clasicos past:
- San Jose's five-goal rally in Major League Soccer's 2003 playoffs
- Landon Donovan's bitter 2005 return to Spartan Stadium
- The Galaxy's 3-1 road triumph over the best-in-the-league Quakes en route to the 2005 MLS Cup title
- Alan Gordon's stoppage-time header to complete a three-goal comeback
That last one, just 5½ weeks ago at Home Depot Center, still bothers the Galaxy, who were 15 minutes plus stoppage from ending a nightmarish five-game winless streak before Steven Lenhart, Khari Stephenson and Gordon delivered a most improbable 3-2 triumph.
Only it wasn't so improbable. San Jose (10-3-3), the best team in MLS record-wise, keeps pulling out late victories. It has won seven of its last 10 league games with a goal in the 84th minute or later, scored four stoppage-time winners, rallied from behind in six victories (all competitions) and gone 4-2-3 after conceding the first goal.
MLS teams have rallied from a halftime deficit to win six times this season -- the Earthquakes twice. They lead MLS with 11 goals in last 15 minutes and 20 in the last half-hour.
That's what the Galaxy (6-8-2), finally finding its stride after three horrid months (with that unbeaten streak, which reached eight games), is facing when in Saturday night's rematch before a sellout crowd of more than 50,000 at Stanford Stadium.
“That's the trademark of their team,” said L.A. defender Todd Dunivant. “Just being the hungrier team, getting on the end of things.”
It happened May 23 in Carson. Hector Jimenez, making his first start of the season, scored a fine goal just three minutes in, and L.A. dictated play for the first hour. Jimenez was red-carded about 15 minutes into the second half, but Mike Magee doubled the advantage in the 73rd minute.
“We felt we played one of the best first halves we'd played up to that point,” Dunivant said. “We got out to a good lead, got a red card but still got another goal on top of it, so we were in good shape and let it slip.”
Lenhart headed home a corner kick in the 75th minute, Stephenson converted a penalty kick after a David Beckham hand ball seven minutes later, and Gordon struck on a ball from the right flank four minutes into stoppage.
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.
“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.”
David Beckham took a fairly sizable cut in pay to stay with Galaxy rather than chase Paris Saint-Germain's millions, it turns out, and he's no longer Major League Soccer's top earner.
That's the big news from the MLS Players Union's release Friday of salary figures across the league, an annual event that provides the only substantial look at at least a portion of player contracts in the league.
Beckham, whose initial five-year deal with the Galaxy paid him $32.5 million -- $5.5 million in annual salary and $6.5 million in average guaranteed compensation -- settled for $2.5 million less this go-round: His salary is $3 million and guaranteed compensation is $4 million.
That drops him below New York Red Bulls stars Thierry Henry ($5 million and $5.6 million) and Rafa Marquez ($4.6 million for both figures). Galaxy striker Robbie Keane (making $2.917 million in salary, $3.417 million guaranteed) is No. 4 on the league's list, and captain Landon Donovan ($2.4 million) is No. 5.
Beckham was offered a reported 18-month, $18.7 million contract by French giant PSG before re-signing a two-year deal with the Galaxy in January.
Additional compensation, beyond base salary and guaranteed compensation, is not accounted for in the Players Union survey.
Chivas USA striker Juan Pablo Angel also took a substantial pay cut, dropping out of Designated Player territory. He's making only $350,000 in base salary (after receiving $1 million under his previous contract) but $600,000 in guaranteed compensation (down from $1.25 million).
The Galaxy has the second-highest payroll at about $10.76 million, behind only the Red Bulls' $12.2 million. Chivas is 14th at nearly $2.62 million.
Chivas has been economical in picking up talent in South America. Star central midfielder Oswaldo Minda is making only $50,000 ($68,750 guaranteed), fellow Ecuadoran Miller Bolaños and Colombian forward Jose Erik Correa just $48,000 apiece, and Colombian center back John Alexander Valencia $50,000.
Decent raises were given to Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy ($175,000 from $62,496) and Galaxy defenders Omar Gonzalez ($180,000 from $120,000) and Sean Franklin ($205,000 from $97,389).
The president's rollicking address, which betrayed more than a passing knowledge of the game and the team, offered a nice respite for the struggling champions, who are 3-5-2 and haven't won in their last four games.
Instead, the focus was on last year, when the Galaxy romped to Major League Soccer's Supporters' Shield, setting a post-shootout era points record in the process, and swept through the playoffs to win their third MLS Cup title, to go with their 2002 and 2005 triumphs.
“It's an amazing tradition to have, for teams to be able to come here," Beckham told media covering the event. "Because you come out meeting the president, and it's motivation -- it motivates you to want to come back next year. I hope we do, because it's a great day, a proud day for all of us.”
Obama regaled a gathering in the East Room -- moved from the South Lawn because of a thundershower threat -- with jokes at the expense of L.A.'s two biggest foreign stars, recounted their title triumph last Nov. 20 over the Houston Dynamo, and applauded head coach Bruce Arena for taking the Galaxy “from worst to first in just four years.”
“The truth is, in America, most professional soccer players have the luxury of being able to walk around without being recognized,” the president noted. “But not these guys. This is the Miami Heat of soccer. And together, they represent one of the most talented lineups that MLS has ever seen.”
“It makes you realize that people care, people take notice,” Donovan said afterward. “At the end of the day, we’re just playing a soccer game, so I get it, there are a lot more important things going on in the world. But it’s still cool to know that you inspire people and people care about what you’re doing.”
The Galaxy ate it up on an emotional afternoon that featured a brief reunion with goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who is in MLS's substance-abuse treatment program and had been away from the team since April 27.
“It was very nice to see Josh,” Donovan said. “We're all very much encouraged to see him and see how he's doing. I know it was a big deal for him, and I think we're all really excited that he could be a part of it.”
Several figures on last year's championship team weren't invited to be part of the ceremony. Only current Galaxy players and coaches who were with the club in 2011 were honored -- newcomers sat with the audience -- and not everybody was pleased about that.
Midfielder Chris Birchall, so key in the second-leg victory over New York in the first round of the playoffs but now with the Columbus Crew, took to his Twitter account to express his unhappiness Thursday night, also mentioning retired defender Frankie Hejduk, who is now with Columbus' front office.
Here is a transcript of President Obama's remarks Tuesday at the White House honoring the Galaxy's MLS Cup championship:
“Thank you. (Applause.) Everybody, please have a seat. Have a seat. Well, welcome to the White House, everybody. And congratulations to the L.A. Galaxy on your third MLS Cup. (Applause.) Number three.
“Before we start, I want to acknowledge an L.A. native and my outstanding secretary of Labor -- I don't know how her game is, but she's a fan. Hilda Solis is here. (Applause.) We’ve got some proud members of the California delegation, the House of Representatives who are here. We're thrilled to have them.
“I’m not going to flatter myself by assuming these cameras are for me. (Laughter.) I want to thank the Galaxy for letting me share in the spotlight. (Laughter.) The truth is, in America, most professional soccer players have the luxury of being able to walk around without being recognized. But not these guys. This is the Miami Heat of soccer. (Laughter.) And together, they represent one of the most talented lineups that MLS has ever seen.
“You’ve got Robbie Keane, all-time leading scorer of the Irish national team. (Applause.) Cousin of mine. (Laughter.) Robbie arrived halfway through last season, scored his first goal in the first 21 minutes of his first game. His teammates were so happy to have him that they filled his locker with what they called the “pleasures of Ireland” -- Guinness, Bailey’s, and Irish Spring. (Laughter.) Hopefully, Robbie has broadened their horizons a little bit since then.
“We also have a young up-and-comer on the team, a guy named David Beckham. (Laughter.) I have to say I gave David a hard time -- I said half his teammates could be his kids. (Laughter.) We're getting old, David. Although you're holding up better than me. (Laughter.)
“Last year, at the age of 36, David had his best year in MLS, leading the team with 15 assists. He did it despite fracturing his spine halfway through the season, injuring his hamstring the week before the championship game. He is tough. In fact, it is a rare man who can be that tough on the field and also have his own line of underwear. (Laughter.) David Beckham is that man. (Laughter.)
“And then there’s the captain, Landon Donovan (applause) who has done more for American soccer than just about anybody. Landon’s eye for the net, his will to win are legendary, and once again, he stepped up when his teammates needed him most.
“After going undefeated at home last season, the Galaxy was struggling in the cold and rainy championship match. But then, in the 72nd minute, David headed the ball to Robbie, who made a perfect pass to Landon, who chipped in the game-winner. And that set off an all-night celebration in L.A. -- although my understanding is that David had to get up for carpool duty at 8 a.m. (laughter), so his day was ending a little early.
CARSON -- It's only the fifth game in the Galaxy's Major League Soccer campaign, and already they're in must-win mode. That's what happens when things so puzzlingly fall apart.
There's enormous frustration and confusion in the L.A. camp -- David Beckham isn't even certain how many losses the Galaxy (1-3-0, 3 points) have -- but that's accompanied by a wary confidence that things will turn around, likely when the Portland Timbers (1-3-1, 4 points), fellow stragglers, visit Home Depot Center for a Major League Soccer match.
“I think there's certainly some frustration, but we're kind of looking at [the tough start] as an opportunity to get things right,” left back Todd Dunivant said. “And if there's ever a time in the season to do it, it's be now. We have to sort out all of our issues, and we've got a lot of them.”
Defending has been the biggest problem -- as much in midfield as at the back -- but L.A.'s defense wasn't bad in last week's 1-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City, the only MLS team with a perfect (5-0-0) record. That the attack has also been so poor, unable to put a shot on frame at K.C., suggests that either Omar Gonzalez should have been runaway winner of MLS's Most Valuable Player honor last year, or that the troubles are deeper or more varied than the missing center back. Maybe both.
“We've not done well in games and not even looked like winning games,” said Beckham, who figures to return to the Galaxy lineup after missing last week's game with a hamstring injury. “I think it's time now to show as a team and as individuals the character that we've got and we've shown over the last few years, because so far this season we haven't seen it. ... We're not defending well, we're not working, we're not doing the simple things. We've not become a bad team overnight, it's just the simple things we're not doing.”
And things aren't quite as bad as Beckham thinks.
“We're only, what, five games in?” he said Thursday. “Lost four and won one. Not a good record, but it could be worse. At least we have one win.”
Portland offers a nice opportunity to straighten things out. The Timbers have lost three in a row, and they dropped their last two -- at home -- by surrendering a late lead against Real Salt Lake and conceding a late winner to Chivas USA.
“The negative reactions of everyone outside of this team -- the fans, I guess -- they're worried are we going to play better,” center back A.J. DeLaGarza said. “Inside the team, we know what we can do better, we know we will do better. ... I think just to get our confidence back, we need something good this week.”
Head coach Bruce Arena said as much.
“We're a little behind with Leonardo coming back,” Arena said after Thursday's practice at Home Depot Center. “Our plan was he was going to be ready in March, but he's going to need more time. ...
“He's a player if he gets back to where he was, we've got a good young center back in the league. You know, we have him under contract now [after he was with L.A. last year on loan from São Paulo]. Sometimes you have to do things for the long-term. I think Lopes is a solution for the short-term.”
Lopes is big (6 feet 3 and muscular) and strong and athletic and physical, and those qualities have been missing on the Galaxy backline with Gonzalez out likely until mid- or late summer because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Arena, who called Lopes “an interesting player,” said a decision would be made Friday as to what his role, if any, will be for Saturday night's game against the Portland Timbers at Home Depot Center.
Whatever happens Saturday, Lopes will be asked to contribute quickly. He says he's coming into camp looking for a starting job.
“Absolutely,” Lopes said in Spanish through an interpreter. “The Galaxy is a great team, a team that's always winning, always getting good results. ... They have very good players and players with worldwide recognition, like David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane -- they're obviously here because they are quality, and that's why I'm here, because I have some quality as well. I just need to get better every day so I can play for the club.”
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.
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.