MLS 2012 preview: L.A. Galaxy
2011 record and finish: 19-5-10 (1st place in Western Conference; MLS Cup champions)
Additions: F Edson Buddle; M Marcelo Sarvas; M Kyle Nakazawa; D Andrew Boyens; M/F Pat Noonan; M Jose Villareal; D Tommy Meyer; M Kenny Walker; F Bryan Gaul; M Rafael Garcia; G Bill Gaudette
Key questions facing this team
1. How much will the team miss Omar Gonzalez?
Gonzalez's aerial ability and toughness were the perfect complement to the speedy A.J. DeLaGarza, and his 6-foot-5 frame also made him a significant threat on set pieces. Now that the U.S. international has been shelved until at least August with a torn ACL in his left knee, it will become apparent just how important he is. At present, the options to replace Gonzalez are iffy. Leonardo is the pick of the bunch, but he's in the process of recovering from an ACL injury of his own and won't be available until April. Journeyman Andrew Boyens has Gonzalez's height but isn't mobile. Rookie Tommy Meyer has shown potential in the preseason but obviously lacks experience. Is it too late to ask assistant coach Gregg Berhalter to come out of retirement?
2. Will international commitments and a crowded calendar spread the Galaxy too thin?
Probably not, for the simple reason that these are challenges L.A. has dealt with in the past. But this summer the list of challenges will increase. The Olympics will likely rob the Galaxy of David Beckham, and perhaps even Landon Donovan. The Euros will take away Robbie Keane for an extended period. Then there's World Cup qualifying.
Competing on multiple fronts that include the Supporters Shield, the U.S. Open Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS Cup playoffs will be taxing as well. That said, the Galaxy's depth is unrivaled at present, and barring an ungodly spate of injuries, it should see them through any and all challenges.
3. Will Josh Saunders follow up his breakout season with an even better campaign?
Admittedly, this one is a stretch given the way Saunders performed last year in relief of Ricketts, which resulted in the Jamaican being dealt to Montreal. While Saunders wasn't tested often thanks to L.A.'s stellar back line, he delivered almost every time. But Gonzalez's injury should result in Saunders seeing more action, and he'll need to equal -- or perhaps increase -- his level of sharpness if L.A. is to maintain its lofty perch atop MLS.
Biggest X factor: Leonardo
It's easy to forget that it was the Brazilian who started the first seven games of 2011 before an ACL injury scuttled his season. And if he can return to his pre-injury form, there seems to be nothing to stop L.A. from laying waste to MLS. But an injury such as this is often as much a mental test as it is physical, requiring months of games before the player can even begin to approach his best. Whether that is a luxury the Galaxy has remains unclear. Certainly the drop-off in quality after Leonardo is considerable. If he doesn't make it back, L.A.'s procession to more trophies could be more complicated than originally thought.
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Breakout player to watch: Marcelo Sarvas
Sarvas was spotted by the Galaxy during last year's CONCACAF Champions League group stage, when L.A. went up against Costa Rican side Alajuelense. And he was originally brought in to replace the presumed-to-be-departed Juninho, who is now back in the fold. But given Beckham's Olympic commitments, not to mention the packed scheduled, Sarvas should get plenty of opportunities to show off his two-way abilities, in particular his savvy passing.
The question doesn't seem to be if L.A. will win MLS Cup, but more: How dominant will the Galaxy be? L.A. has an embarrassment of riches at nearly every position save center back. The presumed front six of Keane, Edson Buddle, Donovan, Beckham, Juninho and Mike Magee is downright intimidating. And in Bruce Arena, L.A. has a manager well-versed in what it takes to win championships.
But Arena knows better than anyone that titles aren't determined in the preseason, nor are they won on paper. The expectations placed on L.A. can weigh heavy. Who knows when injuries will strike? And certainly, there is a weakness in the center of defense that could come back to bite the team in the playoffs if it isn't addressed.
That said, it will be a colossal upset if L.A. doesn't prevail this season. The team is too talented, and Arena is too astute a manager to simply stand pat if things aren't going well. Look for L.A. to be celebrating once again at season's end.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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