Minor stars key for Galaxy to shine in 2010
2009 record and finish: 12-6-12 (tied for first in Western Conference, MLS Cup finalist)
Key additions: M/F Clint Mathis, D Alex, D Leonardo, M Juninho, M Michael Stephens
Key losses: M Stefani Miglioranzi, D Tony Sanneh, D Leonard Griffin
Key questions facing this team:
1. Will another scoring option besides Landon Donovan emerge?
Lost in the euphoria of L.A.'s impressive turnaround season in 2009 was the fact that the team was not exactly an offensive juggernaut. The Galaxy finished tied for 10th in the league with 36 goals scored. With 12 goals and six assists, Donovan was involved in exactly half of his team's tallies.
The Galaxy compensated by becoming adept at grinding out results. Not only did they record 12 ties, but they also claimed six 1-0 wins during the regular season. While such grit is commendable, the Galaxy could give themselves some breathing room by finding additional contributors to the attack, especially given that Donovan will miss more than a month of the regular season due to World Cup duty, while David Beckham's torn Achilles tendon will render him unavailable until mid-September at the earliest.
Coping with these absences, as well as creating more chances, will take a team effort. Mike Magee, Clint Mathis, Edson Buddle and the newly acquired Juninho will all be asked to shoulder more of the attacking load. Buddle in particular will be hoping to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2009 that saw him net just five times.
2. Can L.A. duplicate the defensive effort of 2009?
At first glance, the answer to this question seems self-evident. All of the major players in defense are back, with new arrivals Alex and Leonardo providing significant depth. For that reason, another stingy campaign seems in the offing.
But just as important as the back line is the defensive work done in midfield, where there are some questions. Stefani Miglioranzi, who manned the holding midfield role for the first half of last season, was claimed by Philadelphia in the expansion draft. And while Dema Kovalenko and Chris Birchall filled in capably for the rest of 2009, Kovalenko's advancing age and Birchall's lack of range raise concerns that they will be unable to provide an effective bulwark in front of the back line, especially on the vast expanses of the Home Depot Center.
If Kovalenko can reprise his tough-tackling ways this season, all should be well. But if he sustains a drop-off in form, that will increase the pressure on a back four that, at least in the center, lacks foot speed. This might necessitate playing both Kovalenko and Birchall in holding roles, which would weaken the attack.
3. Has the rest of the Galaxy midfield logged too many miles?
In 2009, the faith manager Bruce Arena put in veteran players was repaid with interest. This was especially true in midfield, where players like Eddie Lewis, Kovalenko and Chris Klein played significant roles. Yet their respective ages are 35, 32 and 34. When you consider that Mathis, 33, underwent preseason knee surgery, as well as Beckham's travails, the questions about the group being too old begin to mount.
To be fair, the Galaxy have made some moves in the past year to bring in some younger legs. Birchall is 25, while Juninho, Tristan Bowen and rookie Michael Stephens are all younger than 22. With Donovan and Magee at times patrolling the flanks, the age concerns begin to ease further. But all it takes is another injury or two, and the team will be leaning on its elder statesmen for significant minutes. And while veteran guile is a valuable commodity, it isn't always enough in a fast-paced, physical league like MLS.
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Biggest X factor: Mike Magee
Practically from the moment Magee entered the league in 2003, he's been pegged as "Donovan-lite," given the flashes of goal scoring and creativity he has shown. And while he hasn't always lived up to that billing, in part due to injury, in 2009 Magee proved an able sidekick. He recorded a career-high six assists as well as four goals, two of which came in the postseason.
Given Donovan's expected absence for the World Cup, as well as Beckham's long-term injury, even more will be expected of Magee this season. Whether he lines up as a second striker in support of Buddle or out on the flank will depend on the availability of other players, but the Galaxy will need Magee to be at his creative best and thus ease the team's reliance on Donovan.
Breakout player to watch: Juninho
Another player expected to provide a creative element to the side is Juninho, who currently is on loan from Brazilian side Sao Paulo. The 21-year-old has been described as an attacking playmaker in the mold of Dallas' David Ferreira, and he'll initially be expected to help orchestrate the Galaxy's attack at the top of a midfield diamond. Given that the Brazilian likely will play alongside Donovan and Magee, expect plenty of interchanging of roles. It should be noted that Ferreira needed more than half of the 2009 season to adapt to the league's physical ways, so some patience might be required in terms of Juninho settling into his new environs.
Another breakout candidate is first-round draft pick Stephens, who has enjoyed an impressive preseason so far. Like Juninho, the UCLA product has been getting extended minutes in the center of midfield, although his style is more of a box-to-box midfielder as opposed to an attack-minded player.
Last season, the Galaxy came within a whisker of claiming their third MLS Cup, only to be denied by the cruel lottery that is a penalty shootout. And despite the concerns outlined above, there's every reason to think a repeat is possible.
Donovan Ricketts enjoyed an outstanding first season in MLS, garnering some votes for goalkeeper of the year. And while the central defensive pairing of Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez isn't the swiftest of foot, they provide a rugged presence, especially in the air. Berhalter's experience is invaluable, and as Gonzalez enters his second year, he'll continue to benefit from the tutelage of the former U.S. international.
On the flanks, the trio of Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin and A.J. DeLaGarza has been augmented by the arrival of Alex, giving Arena both quality and depth. This strength in defense should allow L.A. to survive any rough patches the team might experience.
In midfield, it remains to be seen just how much the Galaxy will miss Beckham. The Englishman's loan with AC Milan combined with his expected participation in the World Cup had rendered him unavailable until mid-July anyway. And Beckham's individual numbers last season -- two goals and four assists in 15 regular and postseason matches -- weren't all that impressive.
But one number that can't be cast aside is the team's 9-3-5 record (including playoffs) after Beckham arrived last season, as opposed to 5-3-9 before. It leads one to believe that the intangibles Beckham brought -- his leadership, touch, long-range passing and ability to keep possession -- will be sorely missed. And it's anybody's guess as to how effective he'll be if and when he returns.
Even if Beckham does make it back, this remains Donovan's team; that is, unless some EPL side makes MLS an offer it can't refuse. Fans are witnessing a player at his peak, and while World Cup hangovers have been known to strike the best of players, expect Donovan to operate at a high enough level to make the Galaxy at least a part of the championship conversation.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.