David Beckham stood in the China Room of the White House on May 15, speaking as the voice of reason. The Los Angeles Galaxy were 3-5-2 at the time and about to embark on a three-game losing streak to plummet to an embarrassing low.
What was supposed to be the greatest MLS team ever assembled -- with Beckham somewhat surprisingly signing a new deal, Edson Buddle returning from Germany and Juninho re-upping on his loan from Sao Paulo to add to the cavalcade of star power already in tow -- was quickly becoming the highest-priced flop in MLS history, at least to those outside the Galaxy locker room.
"As we were walking out, [President Barack Obama] said, 'How's the season going?'" Beckham told a media horde much smaller than his normal mass following. "And there was a few, 'Hmm, hmms' kind of. So, it's not been a great start to the season, but we've had worse. There's a long way to go, still [about] 25 games to go. We'll pick it up."
Beckham was right on both accounts. In his roller-coaster tenure with the Galaxy, the club has most certainly had worse. And after working out the kinks, having players overcome personal issues and getting a valuable midseason addition with stalwart center back Omar Gonzalez returning just six months after tearing his ACL, the Galaxy most certainly picked it up.
Now the defending MLS Cup champions enter the playoffs as perhaps the most feared lower seed of all time. Since starting the season on an astounding 3-8-2 journey that saw them dip to the Western Conference cellar at one point, the Galaxy are on a 13-4-4 run, with just two losses in their last 16 games.
With a wild card date with the underdog Vancouver Whitecaps on Thursday standing in the way of a potentially epic conference semifinal with the San Jose Earthquakes, it is time to take the Galaxy serious as title contenders yet again. Very serious, in fact.
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On paper, the Galaxy's roster remains as powerful as MLS has ever seen. Gonzalez's return coupled with the in-season addition of Swedish international Christian Wilhelmsson and the emergence of U.S. Under-20 forward Jose Villarreal have given coach Bruce Arena a new wrinkle on his team sheet. The time for the Galaxy to taste the spoils of victory again in the ever-changing world of MLS roster construction is now, and that fact is no secret both in and out of the Galaxy clubhouse.
The Galaxy's window with this current roster is rapidly closing and has a maximum shelf life of about 14 more months. Beckham, 37, has a year left on his contract before the circus surrounding his future commences yet again. Landon Donovan, 30, has everyone guessing what the future holds for him, but he has been publicly adamant about seeing out his contract that expires after next season as well. Robbie Keane, 32, a legitimate MVP candidate (behind Chris Wondolowski, of course) after a 16-goal, nine-assist campaign, is inked through the 2013 season also.
The common bond between all three Designated Players is that they are fierce competitors, and when their pride and thrones are challenged, they tend to respond. After the unsettling start in which they all slumped, the three combined for 32 goals and 32 assists while maintaining an unusual under-the-radar standing as San Jose, Seattle and Real Salt Lake jostled for positioning atop the Western Conference.
Outside of the DP triumvirate, Gonzalez, who was supposed to go on loan to FC Nurnberg in the winter, is only going to remain in MLS for so long after his remarkable return both to the field and to form has made him a candidate for a European move yet again. The star nucleus as constructed will only hold up for so long.
The Galaxy are not without flaws or question marks, most notably how rookie center back Tommy Meyer will hold up in the postseason as long as A.J. DeLaGarza remains out injured. In addition, the road to an MLS Cup that is unlikely to be played at the Home Depot Center again is considerably difficult for any of the four chief Western Conference contenders (sorry Southsiders, but the sub-.500 Whitecaps backing into the playoffs in the manner that they did hardly instills fear in any of the other battle-tested sides. Kudos for making the playoffs at all in year two, though). The case could easily be made for the Earthquakes, Sounders or RSL to emerge as Western Conference champion.
As the saying goes, though, form is temporary, class is permanent. With a battle-tested coach and group of more-than-capable players not fazed by the adversity of overwhelming expectations and early disappointment, the Galaxy have every bit of class and credential of a title-contending squad. One that could find itself back in the Washington, D.C., landmark next spring, putting its start to the 2013 season in perspective while reflecting on another championship run.