Three months into the 2012 season, the reigning champions were bottom of the West. Here's how Bruce Arena turned the season around to reach the MLS Cup final again.
The LA Galaxy lost 2-1 to the Carolina RailHawks on May 29 to crash out of the U.S. Open Cup. Los Angeles had already lost 4-3 on aggregate to an awful Toronto FC side in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in March. And the reigning MLS Cup champion had won three of 13 regular season games up to that point.
"Bruce is ultra-competitive," Landon Donovan said. "When we started the season the way we did, there was no one angrier than him."
The Galaxy, fresh off a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double, plus with the boon of David Beckham's contract extension over the offseason, entered the season in a contented lull.
"I think maybe some of our guys were thinking about that up until June this year, thinking about 2011," Arena said.
An international break gave the Galaxy over two weeks off to collect themselves. Arena knew he had serious work to do lest the team trumpeted as one of the best in MLS history in 2011 fail to make the playoffs in 2012. This wasn't an ordinary blip.
"All teams go through good stretches and bad stretches. Our bad stretch lasted a little longer than we would have liked," Arena said. "You just have to get together as a team and sort through those issues and help steer everyone in the right direction."
The winner of the first two MLS Cups ever went player to player on his Galaxy roster and explained in no uncertain terms that the levels of performances thus far were not acceptable. One of the more important chats came with captain Landon Donovan, who earned his first invite to the U.S. national team under Arena.
"Bruce and I had lunch when I got back from the national team and I think for the first time I realized the urgency," Donovan said. "You kind of think, 'We still have time, we still have time, we still have time,' but we were over a third of the way through the season at that point and it's hard to make up points.
"He made it very clear that the team was going to go as a few of us went. If we could change it around then the whole team could. We all took that to heart."
In the next match, LA beat the hapless Portland Timbers 1-0 on June 17. But the team bills the next game, against Real Salt Lake on June 20, with much higher significance.
"Right around the Salt Lake game was when it started," Arena said.
"We went down 2-0 early," Mike Magee recalled. "I remember a sense of urgency in the locker room at half time and we saw certain guys step up and build a sense of belief we hadn't had all year. That game we came back and won 3-2. For me, personally, it was the first time we came together and really battled for each other."
The Galaxy went on a tear. They had lost eight matches through May; they lost four from June till the end of the regular season. They posted 11 points from 13 games to start the season, less than a point a game. The average swelled to over two points a match from then on, with the Galaxy picking up 43 from the last 21 games.
The return of a handful of key players helped. Omar Gonzalez didn't recover from a torn ACL until July. Josh Saunders missed most of May to attend Major League Soccer's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health treatment program. Juninho took longer than expected to regain fitness after returning to parent club Sao Paolo during the offseason.
Plus, Arena hinted that Robbie Keane's focus was on Euro 2012 rather than the beginning of the season. "I think when Robbie came back in late June he was 100 percent committed to the Galaxy," Arena said. The Irish striker scored 13 of his 16 regular season goals after returning from the Euros. He's got five more in the five playoff games thus far.
Los Angeles used a hefty dose of postseason savvy and bravado to overcome early deficits to the Vancouver Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes. Then a clever, cynical penalty draw by Keane sucked the sting out of the matchup against Seattle just when it looked like Sounders FC might make a match of it.
Personnel factors played into the return to form in the second half of the season and a third MLS Cup final appearance in four years. But perhaps none weighed as heavily as Arena's stern mitigation in June. That's part of what makes Arena "arguably the best coach in Major League Soccer," according Dominic Kinnear.
Kinnear's Houston Dynamo will meet the Galaxy in the MLS Cup final. On Dec. 1, Houston will come against a team once again resembling Arena in character: bossy and bullish and brutally effective.
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