By Siegfried Spelter
Last Season: The 2008 season started well for the Galaxy with a rash of high-scoring games, including a 5-2 victory over city-rivals Chivas USA, and a surge to the top of the Western Conference standings. However, like a runner sprinting in a marathon, they started sucking air and went through a 12-game winless streak from June to September. Their dismal form was highlighted by a porous defense that conceded 62 goals overall. Eight games into that run, Coach Ruud Gullit resigned and General Manager Alexi Lalas was dismissed. Former US National Team Coach Bruce Arena joined, but did little to spark much of a late season surge. The Galaxy failed to make the playoffs for the third consecutive season and finished with one of the worst records in MLS, tied for last on points with expansion side San Jose Earthquakes.
Dearly Departed: Players left the Galaxy? What?
In case you haven't been paying attention, the matter of who is leaving the Galaxy has been the chatter of the US soccer community for the majority of this offseason. Galaxy superstars David Beckham and Landon Donovan were loaned out to AC Milan and Bayern Munich respectively. Beckham cleverly curled balls and packed the stands while Donovan led the league in scoring this past year. Both players' statuses are still in question, and it is likely that at least one of them will not return, certainly a big blow to any team. Donovan's scoring and technique might be the more precious loss, though, as Beckham contributed little down the stretch last year and carried with him the shriveling spot-light, which clearly affected the team during his stay.
A swathe of mediocre players have also been cleared out, as Arena goes about revamping this squad in an effort to make the playoffs. Greg Vanney retired, Pete Vagenas was selected by Seattle Sounders FC in the expansion draft, and Ante Jazic was traded to Chivas USA. In addition, the following players were waived: Eduardo Dominguez, Joe Franchino, Michael Gavin, Mike Munoz, Alvaro Pires. Rumors are circling that Mike Randolph, Brandon MacDonald, and Steve Cronin could be next for the chop.
New Faces: The rumor machine was in full cycle again this year, linking the Galaxy with European standout strikers Michael Owen and Alessandro Del Piero. Amazingly, the players the Galaxy actually did sign figure to have a big impact on the team's prospects this coming season. Dema Kovalenko came over from Salt Lake hoping to provide a solid steadying presence in the middle of the Galaxy midfield, a trouble spot for the side in 2008. Also added with a eye on shoring up that midfield were veteran Stefani Miglioranzi and ex-New York Red Bull Mike Magee. The latter will double as a creative option in attack. The MLS Draft yielded Omar Gonzales and AJ DeLaGarza, two defensive minded players who again fill a very urgent need. However, how much they will play remains a question. Certain to play a big role is Donovan Ricketts. The Jamaican goalkeeper has played in England for Bolton Wanderers and Bradford City, and will add instant stability to the Galaxy's weakest position.
Season Storylines: Aside from the obvious news about Donovan and Beckham, there is the race to fill their shoes. This club is still blessed with decent talent in certain areas. Eddie Lewis is a former EPL midfielder and US National team member. Edson Buddle, a forward, finished third in MLS scoring last year. However, he flourished in the openings created by Beckham and Donovan, and might struggle to replicate that form. Sean Franklin is an exciting young player who was awarded the MLS rookie of the year award last season. A big storyline for the team this year is going to be the role that these players take on the team as they move from complimentary to star. Buddle especially will find himself in the spotlight as he tries to live up to his successful '08 season and lead the Galaxy attack. Buddle has the talent to be successful, although consistency and finishing have been enduring concerns. The pressure will be on him, and the other remaining starters to fill giant shoes and forge a successful season of their own.
Another storyline is how well Bruce Arena can get this group of players looking like a team again. He's known for building tough teams with stingy defenses, but that reputation will surely be tested in Los Angeles. With a fairly inexperienced back line, all his coaching experience will be needed to mold the team into a cohesive shape and system.
Predicted Placement: The Galaxy will be an interesting team in 2009 at the very least. With low expectations and almost all media attention focused on who is not there, the team should be relatively calm and free of pressure. While the possibility of losing Beckham and Donovan is certainly a huge factor, I can't help but think that there might be some advantages to their departure. The team seemed to struggle under the scrutiny of playing with Beckham. There is some evidence that the team actually plays better without him. In 2007 the Galaxy made a dramatic late-season run to nearly salvage a playoff berth with Beckham on the sideline. If he does leave, the club will face less media and will no longer take long road trips to giant stadiums packed with cheering fans and home teams extra eager to impress. That shouldn't be underestimated.
Basically, the expectations are low and a playoff berth seems unlikely. However, there are the pieces here of a solid team. If Arena is capable of coaxing some swagger out of these players and a clear leader emerges (Edson Buddle anyone?) the Galaxy could surprise people, especially in a parity-rich league like MLS.
Siegfried Spelter is a contributor to Goal.com