With Beckham's arrival pressure mounts on the Galaxy
Editor's note: ESPNsoccernet will preview all 13 MLS teams as they prepare for the 2007 season.
2006 record and finish: 11-15-6 (Fifth in Western Conference)
Key additions: G Joe Cannon, M/F Nate Jaqua, M David Beckham (in July)
Key losses: G Kevin Hartman, D Ugo Ihemelu, F Herculez Gomez
Three questions facing this team:
1. How will the team deal with the "Beckham Factor"?
Never mind that Beckham isn't due to arrive until late July. The once and perhaps future England international will be a distraction well before his arrival, with a steady diet of questions about how he'll fit in sure to try the patience of his teammates.
There are some who feel that Landon Donovan will be among those performers unsettled by all the Beckham hoopla, but that seems unlikely. Donovan's ego is such that he doesn't need the spotlight to be shining on him 24/7, and he likely will welcome having Beckham around, if only to take some of the pressure off him.
The same can't be said of some of the younger players, who lack the experience of dealing with such media scrutiny. That's where the calming influence of coach Frank Yallop will be most in demand, and if the former Canadian international can keep his charges settled, the arrival of Beckham might be easier than anticipated.
2. How will the Galaxy cope with the crowded calendar?
With the advent of the SuperLiga, and with the Gold Cup and Copa America on the international docket, the Galaxy are among several MLS sides whose depth will be tested severely. Compounding things for L.A. is that Beckham's arrival and subsequent tour of MLS cities has resulted in a brutal schedule that will see the Galaxy finish with 18 league games in 11 weeks, with 11 of the games on the road.
Then there is the "other" international tournament this summer, the FIFA U-20 World Cup, which could result in Nathan Sturgis and Quavas Kirk missing an extended amount of time. Combine that with the international commitments of fullbacks Ante Jazic and Chris Albright, and L.A. might find itself without its first- and second-choice fullbacks on both sides of the field. The expected absence of Donovan only adds to Yallop's list of migraines.
Fortunately, the Galaxy's league schedule is light during this time frame, but the international calendar and packed second-half schedule likely will result in L.A. dropping points it normally wouldn't. The glut of international commitments also might serve to stunt the settling-in process for a team that has plenty of new faces.
3. Will Yallop really opt for a 4-3-3?
|Eric Wynalda's Take:|
|"Beckham is one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet and is going to bring a whole lot of attention to the league. But I don't want Cobi Jones to get lost in the shuffle here in what is his last year in the sport. I think that his departure from the L.A. Galaxy, needs to be respected and celebrated as well. The thing to remember about Beckham is that he's amazing on free kicks and he's a player who can play the game at the highest level, but this is not Pelé. The other thing to consider is that Frank Yallop is hands down the best coach I've ever watched work in this league."
Eric Wynalda is an ESPN soccer analyst.
Hell did not freeze over. The end of the world is not at hand. But with Yallop set to junk his tried and tested 4-4-2, one could be forgiven for thinking that something was seriously amiss.
Given that Yallop began tinkering with L.A.'s alignment last season, it's clear the switch is not some seat-of-the-pants decision intended to accommodate Beckham. The Galaxy coach thinks the advanced midfield role is tailor-made for Donovan, in that he'll be facing up to goal more often but still will have sufficient defensive cover behind him. The switch suits potential wide players such as Santino Quaranta and Nate Jaqua as well, in that it will allow them a bit more freedom to get forward.
Then there is Beckham himself. Yallop anticipates that the Englishman will line up centrally, but toward the right side of midfield playing behind Donovan. This should allow Beckham to contribute plenty to the attack while exploiting his prodigious work rate, a trait that has long been underappreciated.
Biggest X factor: Santino Quaranta
Quaranta has shown Best XI ability during his MLS career, and that talent has resulted in occasional call-ups to the U.S. national team. But a combination of injury and a questionable work ethic have seen him show his skill only in fits and starts. Given the Galaxy's need for better flank play, now appears to be the optimal time for Quaranta to deliver on his immense promise.
The talent L.A. has accumulated in the past year, including Jaqua and Beckham, should provide Quaranta with the tools to make the most of this opportunity. It's not the first time he has been given this kind of chance, however, and his ability to deliver service from the wings -- and give L.A. more variety in attack -- could have a telling effect on the Galaxy's fortunes this season.
Breakout player to watch: Nathan Sturgis
Amid the wreckage of last year, Sturgis was one player whose stock actually rose, as he filled in at a variety of positions, including a successful stint as a holding midfielder. Heading into this year, the Clemson product appears set to make that position his own and, according to Yallop, will anchor the Galaxy midfield.
Sturgis' commitments with the U-20s this summer might delay his ascension somewhat, but given his ability to play anywhere along the back line as well as in midfield, it seems only a matter of time before he becomes a fixture in the Galaxy lineup.
When the Galaxy failed to make last year's playoffs, there was a tendency to think the magic Yallop worked in leading San Jose to two championships didn't follow him south. But the reality is that the Galaxy posted a record of 9-7-5 after Yallop's midseason appointment; a record that, if extrapolated to a whole season, would have qualified L.A. for the playoffs.
But with a spate of moves made since Yallop's arrival, including the acquisition of Jaqua and All-Star goalkeeper Joe Cannon, the honeymoon period he enjoyed is officially over. This is a team with high expectations. Simply put, nothing short of a championship will do, and with Beckham's arrival putting a microscope on every stumble, the pressure on this team -- and its coach -- should be immense.
Pressure and the schedule aside, a return to the playoffs seems certain. Even without Beckham, the Galaxy are improved in almost every area of the field, especially with the addition of Jaqua and with Quaranta's availability for a whole season.
The center of defense -- where the relatively untested duo of Troy Roberts and Kyle Veris will battle to partner Galaxy mainstay Tyrone Marshall -- does remain something of a question mark. Yallop stated that the rumors of Tony Sanneh's impending arrival are just that, although he is looking to add another center back. Should Roberts or Veris falter, Sturgis' versatility might ride to the rescue, although Yallop would prefer otherwise.
Finding a target forward to man the top of L.A.'s new formation remains a challenge, as well. Jaqua could be that player, but his past history suggests he is more effective when facing up to goal. Alan Gordon is another possibility, but doubts remain about his ability to score consistently.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for L.A. will be getting all the new faces to play as a team, especially after the initial wave of Beckham-mania subsides. Beckham's reputation is that of a consummate pro, willing to put the team first. If that happens, and the rest of the players buy into his arrival, then a deep playoff run is a possibility.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.