Galaxy relying on veterans in 2009
Editor's note: This is the 14th of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. The final preview will be Columbus on Saturday.
2008 record and finish: 8-13-9 (6th in Western Conference)
Key additions: M Dema Kovalenko, M Stefani Miglioranzi, D Omar Gonzalez, D Todd Dunivant, G Donovan Ricketts, D Leonard Griffin, F Mike Magee, F Jovan Kirovski, D A.J. DeLaGarza, D Tony Sanneh
Key losses: D Ante Jazic, M Pete Vagenas, D Greg Vanney, D Mike Randolph, G Steve Cronin, M Ely Allen, M Alvaro Pires, M Brandon McDonald, M Joey Franchino, D Troy Roberts
Key questions facing this team:
1. What will L.A. get out of Landon Donovan and David Beckham?
It now looks as though the Galaxy's want-away pair of stars will be returning after all, albeit under very different circumstances. Bayern Munich's decision not to purchase Donovan's contract amounts to strike three in terms of his European aspirations, meaning the U.S. international will be in the L.A. lineup when the season opens on March 22. Meanwhile, the extension of Beckham's loan with AC Milan means he won't suit up for the Galaxy until their 18th league game of the season on July 16.
But how will they perform when they return? It's tempting to think Donovan's Euro-hangover will require some vigilance on the part of head coach Bruce Arena, lest the U.S. international revert to the kind of inconsistent play that often marked his time at club level prior to last year's stellar campaign. Then again, Donovan could come back looking to prove something, which would be bad news for the rest of MLS.
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Beckham's reintegration will require even more careful thought, especially if the Galaxy are in the playoff hunt when he returns. The Englishman's cutting remarks about MLS will likely not go down well in the L.A. locker room, and there is also the question of Beckham's level of motivation. Will he deliver the sharp performances reminiscent of the first half of last year, or will he sleepwalk through the remainder of the campaign, doing nothing more than trying to avoid injury as he waits for his inevitable return to Milan?
2. How much better will the Galaxy's defense be?
After leaking 62 goals last season, it's safe to say that L.A.'s defense can't do much worse. With the acquisitions of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, defender Todd Dunivant and holding midfielder Dema Kovalenko, the unit appears more solid than at any time last year. A further positive is that Sean Franklin will be returning to his more customary right back position. While Dunivant is still in the process of recovering from ankle surgery, Eddie Lewis is a more-than-capable fill-in.
But Arena's reconstruction project is still very much a work in progress, especially as it relates to the center of defense. The Galaxy appear to have done well in the drafting of Maryland defender Omar Gonzalez, but as Franklin showed last year, relying on a rookie center back involves some inevitable growing pains. And as of this writing, the leading candidate to partner Gonzalez is Tony Sanneh. While the former U.S. international has loads of experience, the question of how his 37-year-old body will hold up over an entire season remains to be seen.
3. Can Arena get back to the top? Better yet, will owners AEG let him?
While Arena is still among the most decorated of American coaches, the first-round exit of the U.S. national team at the 2006 World Cup and his mediocre stint in charge of the New York Red Bulls have served to tarnish his once impeccable reputation.
So far it appears that Arena has taken the prudent approach of acquiring hardworking, veteran players in the hope of constructing a side with a bit more nasty to it. But getting L.A. back to the playoffs will require patience, which has not been a virtue of AEG. If progress doesn't come at a fast enough clip, will the Galaxy's owners opt for stability over a perceived quick fix? Arena's chance of success depends on it.
4. How long will it take the influx of new players to jell?
While many elements of the team's attack remain in place, the spine of the team is comprised almost entirely of newcomers, and the pace at which some cohesion is developed among this group will be a huge factor in getting the team back to the playoffs.
Given that Donovan and perhaps Lewis will be occupied by international commitments this summer, developing some chemistry among stand-ins like Mike Magee and Jovan Kirovski will be required as well. But helping L.A.'s cause is the fact that many of the newcomers have played for Arena before, meaning a deep understanding of his expectations and style has already been established.
Biggest X factor: Dema Kovalenko
For all of the criticism leveled at the hideous performance of the back line in 2008, the lack of a midfield enforcer was just as big a concern for the Galaxy. L.A. appears to have addressed that need with the acquisition of Kovalenko, and the hope is that opponents won't find it so easy to play their way through the L.A. midfield.
That said, Kovalenko will turn 32 in August, and there is some concern about whether he still has the range to cover the vast expanses of the Home Depot Center, especially if he's paired with a more attack-minded partner like Beckham.
Assuming that additional back line help doesn't arrive before the start of the season, the play of Sanneh will also be a huge factor. The last time Sanneh suited up for an MLS side was in 2007 for Colorado, and that campaign saw him limited to just five starts. Expecting Sanneh to greatly exceed that number while maintaining a high level of play, as well as tutoring Gonzalez, seems a stretch.
Breakout player to watch: Omar Gonzalez
While Arena has in many cases opted for experience over youth, it's clear the Galaxy's manager plans to give the 21-year-old Gonzalez an extended look in the center of defense. While there is risk associated with such a move, it's not all that unusual for rookie defenders to excel. Players such as Chad Marshall, Jonathan Bornstein and Michael Parkhurst have all enjoyed outstanding rookie seasons in the past several years, although they all had solid supporting casts.
|John Harkes' Take:|
|"Bruce Arena has brought in Dema Kovalenko, who will bring a little bit of an edge to that midfield, getting stuck in. He's also brought in some other players that can make a difference. Hopefully goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts [will] make some decisions in the back that can be more solid, because their goalkeeping was kind of suspect last year. Omar Gonzalez -- a young player that I watched at Maryland -- he's a big strong center back at 6-5. Whether or not he can adapt quickly to the speed of play in MLS, that'll be the only challenge for him. Eddie Lewis is gonna be there for his second season now, maybe a little more settled as well. I think that Arena's been given an opportunity to reconstruct this team and it's really going to be brick and mortar from the beginning again, so he's gotta make some changes."|
At 6-foot-5, Gonzalez certainly has the physical tools to be a dominating presence in the back, as well as on set pieces. There are questions about his mobility, and how he fares against speedier forwards like Real Salt Lake's Yura Movsisyan and FC Dallas' Jeff Cunningham will have a significant bearing on the team's overall success.
Arena's decision to shelve last year's crop of young players for more experienced performers has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, the on-the-job training -- and mistakes -- that plagued the team last year won't be an issue for the most part. The downside is that L.A.'s projected lineup, if you include Beckham, boasts six players over the age of 30, and with Lewis already coping with hamstring issues, the ability of those players to last the season is an open question.
The lack of pace in the center of defense is also troubling. Arena may yet acquire additional defenders, especially given the additional salary-cap space that Beckham's loan extension has created. But until that help arrives, the team remains vulnerable to pacy attackers.
Of course, there are no such questions about the quality of L.A.'s attack. In Donovan and Edson Buddle, the Galaxy have the most potent strike force in the league. And with players like Chris Klein, Lewis and Beckham (once he arrives), it's safe to say that the Galaxy's front line won't be starved for service.
Arena has done well to shore up the team's defense, and this improvement should be reflected in the standings. But such was the team's sorry state last year that more time is needed before his overhaul will bear fruit in the form of a playoff spot.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.