How can a team that has missed the playoffs the past three years and won just one of eight games this season be construed as on the right track, more or less?
If that team is the Los Angeles Galaxy, a bothersome trend - six ties in those eight games - is mollified somewhat by signs of commitment and determination: dogged tracking and tackling in midfield, defensive resilience instead of capitulation, dependable goalkeeping, and the ability to get something out of games after falling behind, especially on the road. For most of last season, and much of the past few seasons, those qualities were lacking.
Far better, of course, would be not falling behind in the first place, but for a team that lost games in all conceivable manners last year - blowing leads at home, fizzling on the road, getting blown out by at least three goals on four occasions - to simply not lose at all is a step in the right direction. Despite its dismal overall record last year (8-13-9), the Galaxy was unbeaten (6-0-5) when it scored the first goal. But those games were the exceptions to the general rule.
No team conceded the first goal of the game more often than the Galaxy in 2008. Nineteen times it fell behind 1-0, and though it did manage to rally and win two of those games, it lost 13 and tied just four.
Los Angeles led the league in goals conceded with 62 and, not surprisingly, a team with a leaky back line gave up the most goals in the last 15 minutes of each half (23). So despite leading the league in goals scored (55), and in "late" goals with 29, the Galaxy's attempts to catch up more often than not resulted in zero points.
It is still conceding the first goal this season but in four of the last five games, it has come back to tie rather than falling further behind and is 0-1-5 overall. In the final 15 minutes, it has outscored teams, 6-2. So far in 2009, it has allowed 10 goals in eight games and matched its shutout total of last year (1-0 against New York, 0-0 with Chivas USA).
Its only two shutouts last year were recorded against expansion San Jose, and in only four other games did it concede one goal. In its first eight games last year, the Galaxy had conceded 13 goals and though it was a .500 team (3-3-2) at that point, its abysmal defense soon took its toll.
The Galaxy fell behind in a pair of games last week, at Salt Lake City and Seattle, and managed to come away with ties in both of them. Alan Gordon knocked home a header Sunday to knot up the Sounders before halftime; on Wednesday, the Galaxy outscored RSL in stoppage time, 2-1, to salvage a 2-2 tie. In April, it rallied for 1-1 ties at San Jose and Colorado.
Its efforts were aided in Seattle when defender James Riley was sent off in the 58th minute, yet before and after Gordon's equalizer the Galaxy toughened up. Midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Stefan Miglioranzi squeezed the passing lanes and broke up plays, and keeper Donovan Ricketts cleaned up what his defenders couldn't repel. Those three players are among more than a dozen brought in by Coach Bruce Arena to bolster experience, toughness, spirit, and whatever else can help a team fight through adversity.
"I remember when Dema Kovalenko first came in, and even though he was a good guy, on the field you didn't want to play against him," says Chivas USA captain Jesse Marsch, a former Kovalenko teammate in Chicago. "He was downright competitive and sometimes he'd kick you when he shouldn't have, but you respected that every day when he came out he cared and wanted to win. The more guys you have like that, the more successful you can be."
Against RSL, the Galaxy fell behind in the 34th minute but kept the score at 1-0 until the 91st minute when Landon Donovan converted a penalty kick. RSL then connected on its own PK, only to cough up a second equalizer when a hurried attack yielded a deflected shot that fell to Mike Magee, who slid a shot from a tight angle through the ankles of goalie Chris Seitz in the 94th.
Nobody is yet forecasting playoff soccer in November, no matter how well David Beckham plays when he arrives in July. To see how it should be done Galaxy players and coaches need only look down the corridor at Home Depot Center and ponder Chivas USA's remarkable record (7-1-1) that is nearly a mirror image to that of the Galaxy (1-1-6).
Technically, the Galaxy is at .500, just as it was at this time last year, yet more importantly, some elements vital to success are starting to emerge.