It isn't supposed to be this hard for a SuperClub to earn a title, but the Galaxy managed to fight through the championship hangover to secure a second consecutive title.
In the rarefied air inhabited by this particular SuperClub, life isn't particularly difficult. The depth and the talent concerns of the past dissipated long ago. The media tempests don't affect matters as much as they did at the start of the Beckham era. Even if they did, the Galaxy still possess more resources than all but one or two MLS clubs and use the lure of Hollywood and Manhattan Beach to tempt more proven stars than the modest budget and squad limitations could possibly accommodate.
Despite all of those inherent edges over the competition, the expectation of victory isn't entirely fair. Even the biggest clubs – especially the outfits run far less competently than the Galaxy – cope with concerns and problems. In this parity-filled league where one or two absences to key figures can derail a season, they can even prove crippling.
Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena did his best to highlight those issues after the Galaxy claimed a second consecutive title with a 3-1 victory over Houston on Saturday.
“It has been challenging,” Arena said. “In my experiences in coaching, you see this sometimes. Thank God I have 35 years under my belt to be able to deal with this. It was very challenging and exhausting. And the reason we were able to do it is because we have quality people and a quality organization.”
Those strengths and all of those dollars plunged into this squad didn't help the cause much during the first half of the season. No amount of money could bring Omar Gonzalez back from his knee injury by the start of the season or force David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane to emerge from the stupor that enveloped the entire Galaxy squad. Instead of replicating the rampant success from a year ago, the MLS Cup holders suffered humiliating setbacks and wondered whether they would ever find their way back to the promised land.
“We made it easy last year because we were exception for the whole year,” Beckham said. “This year was obviously different. We made it hard for ourselves. We didn't start well. But good teams and good character in teams come good at the right times. I think we showed that this year.”
It took a while, but the pieces came together. Beckham and Donovan showed the leadership required to stop the rot. Gonzalez recovered from his knee injury to eradicate most of the defensive issues incurred in his absence. Keane returned from a desperately disappointing Euro 2012 experience with the Republic of Ireland to submit the best second half showing of any player in the league. The end product yielded a fourth place finish in the Western Conference and an opportunity to make one last postseason run with all four of those integral players in the squad.
The dichotomy of this peculiar campaign extended to the final match. Donovan squandered a glorious chance inside the first quarter of an hour. He and his teammates withstood an early Houston surge to obtain some sort of parity as the first half progressed, but Dynamo striker Calen Carr scored shortly before halftime to send the home side into an unexpected hole.
As they did during the second half of the regular season, the Galaxy stars responded after halftime. Keane, in particular, ratcheted up the pressure on a day when his movement proved crucial to the efforts. Gonzalez eventually equalized before Donovan slotted home a penalty to essentially secure the match with 25 minutes to spare. Keane added the gloss befitting the occasion by creating and dispatching a penalty in second-half stoppage time to guarantee the title.
Buoyant figure after buoyant figure stepped out of the locker room and onto the podium to laud the victory. Los Angeles enters every season with significant advantages over its rivals, but this triumph required enough work to feel more worthwhile.
“For me, personally, this felt more satisfying,” Donovan said. “Last year, there was a heavy expectation, I think, with the uncertainty about David's future and we hadn't won a championship [with him]. From the beginning, MLS Cup was in L.A. There was a lot of pressure to get there. This year, we could enjoy it a little bit more, I think. To finish where we were in fourth place [in the Western Conference] and unexpectedly move through the playoffs was more satisfying.”
A little earnest toil creates a modicum of appreciation in even the most fortunate of clubs and players. The setbacks and the struggles usually don't linger in this fortunate slice of southern California, but they do make the successes just a little bit sweeter when they pop up along the way.
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