[MLS SPOTLIGHT] To the victors go the spoils, and in the case of the Los Angeles Galaxy, most of the awards as well.
Along with its third MLS Cup, the Galaxy claimed the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular-season record. It won 18 and tied five of its 23 games in all competitions at Home Depot Center. It cleaned up on individual honors: four Best XI selections, Defender of the Year (Omar Gonzalez) and Coach of the Year (Bruce Arena).
Some critics have waved off such accomplishments as guaranteed byproducts of largesse from investor-operator Anschutz Entertainment Group and favorable treatment by the league, referees, etc. AEG has outfitted the Galaxy with an excellent support staff and pays for additional expenses such as charter flights, but one need only look at
the Red Bulls to know money can’t buy happiness, nor success, even in MLS.
“That does not mean squat,” retorts associate head coach Dave Sarachan, who has worked with Arena on and off for nearly two decades. “In fact, it offends me when I hear that, honestly, because people on the inside know how hard it is to do what we did and to manage a group a guys like we have is just not an easy task.
“The reporters can say ‘Was this the greatest team ever?’ or whatever, but this was from start to finish, wire to wire, which is really hard to do. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in all these championships.”
Sarachan was a member of the D.C. United coaching staff during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, during which it won two MLS Cups and also an international competition, the Interamericana Cup.
Arena’s selection as Coach of the Year confounded some observers, who believed that other coaches did as much or more with a lot less to work with. Arena didn’t need to change much in 2011, but those moves converted a good team into a juggernaut.
He aggressively courted and landed striker Juan Pablo Angel in the Re-Entry Draft, but didn’t hesitate to cut him loose when Angel’s spotty scoring record dovetailed with the availability of Irish international Robbie Keane. The striker played just four regular-season games while also serving for Ireland, then pulled off an amazing coup by starting each MLS playoff game as well as two for his nation against Estonia that propelled the Irish into the European Championships.
“He knows the league inside out, he’s been here a long time, he managed the national team, so he’s very aware of every player we play against,” says Keane of Arena. “His attention to detail is second to one. He’s been great to me since I’ve come and I’ve really enjoyed my time over here.”
A season-ending injury to centerback Leandro, projected as the starter alongside Gonzalez, and concerns about the age and fitness of Gregg Berhalter prompted a permanent switch of outside back A.J. DeLaGarza into the middle alongside his former teammate at Maryland.
To further utilize Berhalter’s experience, Arena named him an assistant coach during the season. A very important byproduct of the move gave Berhalter ample time to mentor the back line and Gonzalez in particular. That symbiosis produced one of the best defensive records in league history, and Gonzalez a second honor to accompany his 2009 attainment as Rookie of the Year.
“Consistency is something we’ve been stressing,” said Berhalter of the 6-foot-5 Gonzalez. “He’s in his third year now, so we’ve been working on him and looking at video and talking to him about the game. I think we’ve accomplished that, because he’s been a lot more consistent this year. He is the best defender in the league, there’s no question, and it’s good that he got honored with that award, but it’s even better that we won a championship.”
That accomplishment Berhalter attributes greatly to Arena, for whom he played with the U.S. national team as well as in Los Angeles.
“He wanted to build a strong team, build a consistent team, and build a team that can defend and play from there,” says Berhalter. “If you look over the course of three years – two Supporters’ Shields, two trips to the finals and one championship – he’s done that.”
Arena finally found a consistent, productive spot for Mike Magee, whom he deployed at forward during their time together in New York but installed on the left side in a midfield re-tooled around Landon Donovan and David Beckham. In that midfield, Arena juggled the acumen and skills of Juninho with the rugged persona of Chris Birchall, toggling between them at times, but also pairing them up in certain situations.
“Bruce is obviously the one who has put all the pieces together to make this team,” says Magee, another Galaxy player selected by Arena for the national team. “Dave has been a head coach and has been around Bruce for, I don’t know, about 20 years or something. You can see the comfort level they have with each other and pass it down amongst the players. We also have Curt Onalfo, who has been a head coach, and Gregg Berhalter, so we literally have four great coaches.”
Just as important, Arena and his staff monitored the roster during the comings and goings of Beckham, Donovan and Keane as they jetted around the world for international appearances and other occasional soirees. (Beckham attended a royal wedding in May. Donovan skipped a game against France to rest up for MLS Cup.)
By melding superstars with more workmanlike contributors, Arena took his team all the way with no major dips or bumps.
“I have a ton of respect for Bruce and what he’s done in that locker room to keep that team focused and continue to be winning games throughout the year,” said Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who started the game tied with Arena, Frank Yallop and Sigi Schmid as the only men to guide two MLS Cup winners. “MLS is full of ups and downs. I don’t think they ever had a down period. That was a very determined group.”