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Monday MLS Breakdown: Landon Donovan's Return Critical to Galaxy's Success

By Kyle McCarthy

FULLERTON, Calif. – The most important piece of weekend news pertaining to LA Galaxy's short-term future arrived well before David Beckham's World Cup demise at the San Siro.

While Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena will no doubt worry about the state of Beckham's left Achilles tendon as he waits for further word on the severity of the injury, he probably knows the England international's health will not make or break his side's MLS Cup hopes.

Beckham wouldn't have rejoined the Galaxy until July after his duties with AC Milan and England concluded and wouldn't have commanded an integral role when he did return to the United States. Even with his earnest industry and tidy passing in midfield and his ability to carve open defenses with long, diagonal services and free kicks, Beckham operates as a important supplemental figure with the Galaxy.

Instead of wondering about Beckham's projected recovery, Arena will likely focus on the positive headlines surrounding Landon Donovan's imminent and inevitable return from a 10-week loan spell in England. No player, after all, contributes more to the Galaxy cause than Everton's former number nine.

Lost amid all of the breathless speculation about Donovan's future at Everton – the American international saying all the right things and suggesting he wouldn't mind a longer stint with the Toffees and Everton manager David Moyes stating his desire time and again to retain Donovan after a string of fine performances – is the simple fact that the Galaxy couldn't afford to let Donovan skip any more Galaxy games than he will already miss due to his World Cup commitments.

A loan extension may have appeared an inevitability on the European side of the Atlantic, but it veered toward practical impossibility in the States given Donovan's considerable influence with his primary club side. With the possible exception of Shalrie Joseph in New England, no MLS team relies on one player more than the Galaxy leans on Donovan.

Another illustrative, though by no means dispositive, example of the Galaxy's reliance on Donovan's brilliance occurred during Wednesday night's 1-0 friendly victory over Puntarenas (Costa Rica). All of the typical disclaimers apply – friendly matches don't correspond to competitive matches and the Galaxy missed key offensive reserves Alan Gordon, Jovan Kirovski and Clint Mathis through injury – but this particular Galaxy display revealed the side's limitations without Donovan included in the starting XI.

Puntarenas set out its stall to defend and Los Angeles struggled to break the Costa Ricans down despite ample invitation to do so. The Galaxy attack created chances and threatened frequently, but it missed Donovan's ability to break through a static defense with the ball at his feet, create space for others with sharp, incisive runs and finish a sweeping move appropriately. A comfortable, multiple-goal win with Donovan in the side turned into a narrow 1-0 victory after a clever one-two between Michael Stephens and Chris Birchall resulted in a sumptuous finish by the Trinidad and Tobago international shortly before time.

As he fielded questions after the contest, Arena noted that his side had developed in the attacking third with Donovan away testing his skills in the Premier League.

“We don't worry about Landon,” Arena said. “It's the team here. They're making progress. They created chances (against Puntarenas). You'd like to see more than one goal, but we're really pleased at getting the one goal at the end of the game like we did. I think the attack has grown. We had a few young players out there who need these experiences. Overall, I thought it was o.k.”

Veteran midfielder Eddie Lewis said Arena and the Galaxy were spending plenty of time evaluating other attacking options during training camp. Lewis, a former U.S. international who said he plans to retire at the end of the 2010 season, indicated much of the focus has fallen on working with younger players like Tristan Bowen and Bryan Jordan to turn them into regular offensive contributors. Brazilian central midfielder Juninho, one of three loan arrivals from Sao Paulo, provides another untested attacking option in central midfield and boasts the passing arsenal to influence matches if he can find a way to impose himself in the final third.

The goal, according to Lewis, is to build a deeper squad to give Arena an array of choices in the event Donovan is injured or otherwise unavailable. Donovan's absence allows Arena ample opportunity to hand chances to several players as he attempts to figure out who can contribute when the regular season starts. On this meager evidence, replacing Donovan's offense will take a hefty collective effort.

“It gives the manager a better chance to go through some of those exercises, definitely,” Lewis said. “Alan Gordon's been injured a lot, Jovan's gone down recently. Other than Edson (Buddle) as the true sort of target striker, we don't have a lot of options, but certainly between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3, we're working pretty extensively on both of those types of attacking formations.”

Formations and options aside, this Galaxy team still links its hopes to Donovan and his ability to generate chances in the final third. Los Angeles can rely on a stingy defense marshaled by Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez to keep matches close, but goals are required to turn the Galaxy's tendency to draw (12 draws, tied for second in 2009) into a tendency to win. With Donovan set to start the season in southern California and feature in a run of matches before leaving to join the U.S. World Cup squad in May, the Galaxy will have plenty of time to feature its talisman before he jets off to tend to other duties.

In order to further its overarching aspirations, the Galaxy will have to use some of the alternative measures cultivated in training camp - consistent service to Buddle in dangerous areas and effective wide play, to name two potential options - to relieve some of the pressure on Donovan.

“It was perhaps a fault of ours last year that we sort of depended on Landon a little too much,” Lewis said. “Sometimes, he dug us out of games on his own. Although he's capable of doing that, it's not a healthy approach long-term. There will certainly be games where he's not involved or his form isn't altogether right, so there have to be other ways to break down teams.”

Until Los Angeles can prove those secondary avenues to consistent offensive success exist, Donovan remains the most vital connection between the Galaxy's dreams and its likelihood of attaining them.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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