What's wrong with the Galaxy?
The opening weeks of the MLS regular season are always good for a surprise or two. A side that struggled last season all of a sudden becomes the form team of the league. Heretofore unknown players can come out of nowhere and make a positive impact. Then there are those teams that are shocking for all the wrong reasons, and the clear winner in that category so far has been everybody's favorite to win the MLS Cup, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Heading into the campaign, everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. After looking poised to lose David Beckham and Juninho in the offseason, the Galaxy managed to secure the return of both players. L.A. then went about improving its roster by obtaining midfielder Marcelo Sarvas and reacquiring striker Edson Buddle.
Yet little has gone according to plan on the field for the prohibitive favorites. The Galaxy were bounced from the CONCACAF Champions League by perennial MLS strugglers Toronto. After going unbeaten at home last year, L.A. already has tasted defeat three times in all competitions at the Home Depot Center. Chances have been squandered on the attacking end, and more important, the defense has been a shambles. The Galaxy already have conceded 11 goals in five league and cup games. Last weekend against New England, the defensive unit didn't even give the team a chance, conceding two goals in the first 13 minutes.
Adding a soap-opera element to the proceedings was manager Bruce Arena's decision to sub out Beckham and Sarvas at halftime, resulting in reports that there had been a bust-up in the tunnel leading to the Galaxy locker room and that Beckham's relationship with Arena had been damaged.
On Tuesday, Arena tried to clear the air with respect to his relationship with the team's biggest star, saying that he already had talked to Beckham about the decision to pull him. "We don't have any issues," Arena said via telephone in reference to Beckham. "I don't know why anyone else has an issue [with the substitution]. We're fine at our end. He was in Monday for treatment; he watched our reserve game."
Arena then said, laughing, "I don't think he's packed it up at all."
As for the team's defensive struggles, one obvious reason is the loss of reigning Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez, who tore the ACL in his left knee last January while on trial with German club Nuremberg.
"I don't think it has [impacted us] except for the fact that you're missing a quality player," Arena said. "We always have players missing. It's not any different. We've played games without [Landon] Donovan; we've played games without Beckham. We played games without [Robbie] Keane last year. Omar, I believe, missed the first three or four games of the season last year. To use that as an excuse, to me, is a little bit shallow We're certainly less aggressive, but I don't think that has anything to do with the fact that Omar isn't around."
To Arena's point, the defensive mistakes have been spread evenly around the entire team. While Gonzalez's replacements, Andrew Boyens and rookie Tommy Meyer, have been guilty of errors, so have experienced veterans like A.J. DeLaGarza and Todd Dunivant. And the lack of defensive tenacity in midfield has been a problem as well. Last weekend, New England's midfield duo of Clyde Simms and Shalrie Joseph basically had free run of the Home Depot Center, allowing them to find Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe in dangerous spots.
"We just haven't been consistent enough and solid enough as a group defensively," Arena said. "And really, we haven't taken advantage of the chances we've created because we should be scoring more goals. We've created a number of good goal-scoring opportunities. So it's a little bit at both ends of the field for sure, but as a starting point, we clearly have to be better defensively."
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The glut of errors leads one to wonder whether a bit of post-championship complacency has settled into certain parts of the squad. But Arena flatly denied such a possibility, saying it was simply more a situation in which several players were on bad runs at the same time.
As for where help might come from in the coming weeks, it had been hoped that center back Leonardo would be available soon. Arena acknowledged that the Brazilian was "a little bit behind schedule" but was starting to come around. Still, that doesn't sound as if his return is imminent. The news is better regarding Landon Donovan, who told ESPN L.A. that he expects to play this weekend, although Arena was a tad more circumspect, saying he would wait to see how the week played out.
With L.A. set to take on league-leading Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, Donovan's return would be a huge boost on both sides of the ball. But either way, Arena remains confident his team's slide is temporary. After all, the Galaxy have 31 league games left. "There's no reason to believe we can't improve in some areas pretty quickly, because we have guys with the experience to be able to do that," he said. "That's certainly what I'm counting on, and as long as they're focused properly and committed to the team, we'll be fine."
Vermes remains wary: While Arena tries to turn around L.A.'s fortunes, Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes is battling the opposite problem -- keeping his side focused amid a 4-0-0 start to the season. In his eyes, there's plenty of room for improvement in all areas of the game. Vermes said that his side could be more clinical in front of goal. He bemoaned the chance SKC gave up shortly after taking the lead against Chivas USA last Sunday, only for Nick LaBrocca to hit the post. Attacking set pieces needed to be "much stronger."
If this all sounds vaguely familiar to some Kansas City fans, it should. Former head coach Bob Gansler, who led the franchise to its only MLS Cup in 2000, was famous for cracking the whip when things were going well and easing up when the team struggled in order to preserve confidence. Vermes was the MLS Defender of the Year on that championship side, and he acknowledged Gansler's influence in terms of how hard to press on the gas pedal while also putting his own twist on it.
"There's no doubt that all the different guys I played for, especially Bob, there's things that I've begged, borrowed and stolen for sure," he said. "Some of it is also you have to do what your gut tells you. It's what you're feeling at the time and what the atmosphere and personality of the team is. It sometimes is a weekly thing, and sometimes it's a daily thing. It just depends. You just have to keep your pulse on the team regularly. It's not something you can walk away from."
With L.A. coming to town, there should be no shortage of motivation, however. For all of their struggles, the Galaxy still command plenty of respect from Vermes.
"It's a team that we're trying to emulate and take a page out of their consistency," he said. "We know it's going to be a major challenge for us."
Cronin steps up: For all of the reinforcements San Jose manager Frank Yallop brought in during the offseason, plenty of questions surrounded players who already were there. One in particular was whether Sam Cronin could dovetail his pinpoint distribution with enough bite to provide some protection for the Quakes' back line. So far, Cronin has done that and more as one of the unsung heroes of San Jose's 3-1-0 start.
Yallop said that Cronin's improved defense is down to the fact that he knows that if he "doesn't get stuck in, I'm going to yell at them." But overall, reinforcements such as Marvin Chavez and Shea Salinas have made it easier for Cronin to shine.
"I think the way we play now suits Sam," Yallop said. "He's a possession player, so he likes to get the ball and have options open."
There's a tendency to also think that the new arrivals spurred Cronin on to greater heights given the increased competition in midfield. But he insists that his improvement is due more to last year's failure to reach the postseason.
"We didn't achieve our goals," Cronin said. "So you do a little more and you start a little earlier in the offseason. We knew there was going to be a lot of competition, but we just wanted to improve on last season. Everything had to be better."
So far, it has.
Nomadic Nagbe: The Portland Timbers no doubt are still smarting from last weekend's late collapse against Real Salt Lake, when they coughed up two late goals to turn a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 defeat. But the loss couldn't diminish the fact that the match was something of a coming-out party for Darlington Nagbe, who scored two wondrous goals. Yet it took a pair of tactical switches by manager John Spencer to put Nagbe into a position where he could do some damage. With Kalif Alhassan sidelined by injury, Nagbe started the match on the right side of midfield. But a couple of squandered opportunities by Diego Chara persuaded Spencer to move Nagbe to the top of the midfield diamond in the 15th minute.
"I just felt with Diego's industry, and Darlington's pace, it would be better to put Diego on the right-hand side and Darlington at the point of the diamond and let him have the energy and the creativity to see if Kyle Beckerman could deal with that," he said. "It proved a little bit of a turning point in the game for us offensively."
That it did, with Nagbe equalizing in the 48th minute, but there was more. When Franck Songo'o came on in the 64th minute, Nagbe was pushed up top alongside Kris Boyd and responded almost immediately with a thumping volley that will garner some votes for Goal of the Year.
So where will Nagbe line up this week? Spencer indicated his preference was to play the Akron product "in the attacking third as much as possible." But it's not a done deal. The Timbers manager added that he would have to wait and see how injuries to Alhassan, Songo'o, and Sal Zizzo play out.
"I'm not trying to be cagey," Spencer said. "It just depends on who we get back and who we don't get back. It's possible we'll see him at the point of the diamond again."
One player steps forward, another steps back: There were diverging fortunes for a pair of dynamic attackers on Tuesday. In Seattle, Steve Zakuani completed another step in his comeback from a horrific broken leg sustained almost a year ago. He went full bore in training after playing 45 minutes in a practice match against Gonzaga University over the weekend.
According to head coach Sigi Schmid, it appears that Zakuani is still a month or two away, but the player is clearly pleased with his progress.
"There's nothing really holding me back," Zakuani told MLSSoccer.com. "I've got the green light from doctors. Medically I'm fine, physically I'm ready. It's just a matter of going out there. There's a lot of reserve games coming up, and it's a really, really, really long season. I'm not too far from getting there."
The news wasn't as good for FC Dallas attacker David Ferreira, who underwent surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot that is unrelated to the broken ankle he suffered last year. He'll be out another eight weeks.
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.