A new era begins in Los Angeles for the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Galaxy. Clawing their way to the playoffs as a fourth seed last season in the Western Conference, LA bulled their way back to the championship with a veteran roster repeating their performance of a year prior. It all culminated in a 3-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo, and one of the greatest runs in league history was capped with a final crown.
But the Galaxy are a team in trasition. The Beckham Experiment is officially over in Los Angeles, the English midfielder now plying his trade with Paris Saint-Germain in France. Longtime captain Landon Donovan continues his soul-searching hiatus from the game, wandering the world without a care for soccer until at least the end of March. The leadership role now falls on the shoulders of new captain Robbie Keane.
Will the success of the past two years hyperinflate expectations at the Home Depot Center? What must Bruce Arena do to make sure the transition to a new-look roster goes as smoothly as possible? For the Galaxy to reach the postseason for a fifth straight season and contend for a three-peat, they will need their roster to pick up the slack of their departed superstars early and often.
Los Angeles started their preseason with a resounding 5-0 victory… over the U.S. men’s under-17 national team. Men against boys, the Galaxy torched the youth squad as Mike Magee, Robbie Keane, Jose Villarreal, Greg Cochrane and Jack McBean all potted goals for the MLS club. Keane and Villareal each notched another score in the Galaxy’s 3-0 victory three days later over the LA Blues, a USL Pro side housed in their hometown.
They had a tougher test a week after beating the U-17 squad, losing 1-0 to Real Salt Lake on their home turf as former Galaxy midfielder Ned Grabavoy scored the only goal for the visitors. UCLA provided the perfect foil to recover after their loss against a Western Conference rival, the Pac-12 side barraged by the Galaxy in a 7-2 defeat that saw Sean Franklin and Charlie Rugg each hit a brace.
Los Angeles played their next friendly against K-League side Gangwon FC. With nearly their full first team starting, including a full 90 minutes from goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, the Galaxy held the mid-tier Korean squad to a scoreless draw. Their final preseason match at home saw another foreign visitor, this time Mexican side Club Tijuana. New captain Robbie Keane had the first goal just four minutes into the match, fullback Brian Gaul hit two goals, and LA treated Tijuana much like they had UCLA in a 6-2 walloping.
The Galaxy would play a final preseason friendly, one final test against another direct challenger in the Western Conference race. Playing at Harder Stadium, a hundred miles up the coast in Goleta, Los Angeles faced the Colorado Rapids to give Arena’s crew a final test before the season opener against Chicago. Drew Moor put the Rapids up twelve minutes into the contest, but the Galaxy slowly wrested momentum away as the match progressed. Marcelo Sarvas hit the equalizer ten minutes before halftime, and Jack McBean salvaged victory ten minutes from full-time, as Los Angeles finished their preseason with a 5-1-1 record, though just 2-1-1 against first-division pro competition.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
Former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini signed with the Galaxy on December 31. With the departure of last year’s starter Josh Saunders, who signed as a free transfer with Real Salt Lake in the offseason, the 39-year-old Italian figures to be the first-team selection for Bruce Arena patrolling the net for LA. Former MLS Goalkeeper Pool member Brian Rowe will compete with 2010 waiver pickup Brian Perk, who started five games the past two years for the Galaxy (with a record 0-3-2 with 7 goals against), for the backup role behind the ageless Italian.
2009 SuperDraft selection A.J. DeLaGarza will hold down the fort in central defense as a third-year starter, the stalwart from the past two championship squads on the back line. Omar Gonzalez, who was the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year, returns from an ACL injury and has been earning playing time during World Cup qualifying for the U.S. men’s national team; he will take up position beside DeLaGarza in front of Cudicini. Brazilian center-back Leonardo, now in his fourth year with Los Angeles, provides pivotal depth if either go down to injury. Tommy Meyer, Kofi Opare and Bryan Gaul provide developmental options at the position. On the edges, Sean Franklin — in his sixth year with the Galaxy — takes his familiar place at right back. The left fullback spot will be held down by 11-year MLS veteran Todd Dunivant. Versatile 18-year-old Homegrown player Oscar Sorto can fill in on either side, and will likely be weaned into that role with the wealth of options young and old in the middle. Greg Cochrane, selected in the second round of the 2013 SuperDraft, also offers potential behind Dunivant on the left side.
Juninho must man central midfield as a Galaxy starter for the first time without David Beckham around as an anchoring presence. The flanks are settled, with last year’s starters Mike Magee on the left and Marcelo Sarvas on the right. The only spot truly in question is Beckham’s former post at the heart of the push upfield. Sarvas could conceivably push inward, a more natural spot despite his time on the right side, and open up the wing for Hector Jiminez. Other options include Rafael Garcia or Kenney Walker if Arena opts to use the second central slot as a more defensive holding post. Michael Stephens is a versatile midfielder who can play all four positions, and 2013 first-round pick Andy Riemer is another prospect who could earn limited minutes in relief. Rounding out the roster at the position is Colin Clark, picked back up in the Re-Entry Draft after starting his career in Los Angeles.
Irish international Robbie Keane returns for his third season with the Galaxy and assumes the captain’s armband with the absence of Landon Donovan. That absence presents another dilemma beyond captainship, though — namely, who will man the second attacking spot up front? Jose Villareal, a Homegrown player signed by the club in the winter of 2011, impressed in the preseason, as did 2013 SuperDraft first-rounder Charlie Rugg. Either could earn the starting time along Keane, as could 18-year-old Jack McBean or another Homegrown player, Gyasi Zardes. None will replicate Donovan’s production, but Arena will hope to find adequate replacement value from one or a combination before the former captain returns from his sabbatical.
Despite winning their second consecutive MLS Cup in 2012, the Galaxy still underachieved during the regular season. There will be less margin for error with Beckham off to Paris and Donovan on hiatus from soccer as the team transitions to a new generation. Arena will need to find the right combinations that maximize the team’s potential, and he will have to do it quickly — or the back-to-back champions could be in danger of missing out on the opportunity to even compete for a three-peat in 2013.