By Ridge Mahoney
Now that Landon Donovan has surprised nobody by announcing he’s coming back to play in late March, the two-time defending champion can concentrate on making league history.
No team has accomplished what the Galaxy can attain this year by winning a third straight title. D.C. United won the first two MLS Cups only to lose the 1998 final, and Houston’s back-to-back run in 2006 and 2007 didn’t go any further.
The Galaxy’s success has prompted grumblings about Designated Player-rich teams proving to be dominant, and by narrowly losing the 2009 MLS Cup to Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks and winning the last two championship games, it is certainly approaching that rarified air of becoming a dynasty. D.C. United reached the first four MLS Cups in league history (1996-99) and won three of them, which is the stuff of dynasties. Though the Revs played in three straight MLS Cups from 2005 to 2007, they lost them all, and dynasties don’t work that way.
Counting Designated Player salaries along with the league’s per-team payout of $2.81 million last year, the Galaxy’s payroll was about $14 million, second in the league only to New York. The rich figure to get richer. Whatever it loses at the gate and in sponsorship money without Beckham will be replaced by not owing him the $5.5 million salary paid in 2012. The Galaxy also receives approximately the same sum annually from a 10-year television and marketing deal struck in November, 2011 with Time-Warner Cable, which in 2013 will produce ancillary programs in addition to its game-related coverage.
A courtship of Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard dragged well into preseason before cooling down, but since the North American transfer window doesn’t close until mid-April, it has time to sign a DP to play most of the season. It can also revisit the issue when the window re-opens during the summer. Keane arrived out of the blue in 2011, and the Galaxy certainly has excellent contacts around the world, whether or not a Kaka or Ronaldinho can be enticed.
Eight MLS Cup appearances (four wins, four defeats) in 17 seasons is a tradition of success unmatched by any of its foes.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Veteran Italian keeper Carlo Cuducini has been acquired to replace Josh Saunders, who achieved the dubious distinction of playing his way off a team he’d backstopped to a pair of titles. (Saunders latched on with RSL as a free agent after his contract expired.)
Midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson has also moved on, which makes the retention of Juninho (loan converted to a permanent transfer) and Mike Magee (new contract) all the more important. The signing of veteran winger Colin Clark (Re-Entry Draft from Houston) adds a true wide player. Homegrown signing Gyasi Zardes suffered a broken bone in his left foot during preseason and underwent surgery Feb. 11. He’s expected back around the end of March. Forward Edson Buddle, who arrived back in MLS from Germany a year ago to much fanfare but scored just three goals, was traded to Colorado.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The injury to Gonzalez opened the door for defender Tommy Meyer, who struggled initially as a rookie but emerged as a reliable contributor in time for the playoffs. He supplements the centerback depth L.A. lacked last year. With Gonzalez back to full health, the Galaxy can duplicate its defensive performance of 2011, when it allowed the fewest goals (28) in MLS. If Robbie Keane returns to his scintillating form of 2012 (16 regular season goals, four in the playoffs) dependence on Donovan won’t be an issue.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Even if Donovan returns with his spirit refreshed, he may still be physically worn down from more than a decade of nearly constant play in MLS, for the national team, and short stints overseas with Bayer Leverkusen and Everton. Everyone knows keepers retain their effectiveness longer than field players, yet Cuducini, 39, must ramp up to different teammates, a different league, and a much different schedule. There’s some uncertainty about the future of the team off the field; it is part of the Anschutz Entertainment Group sports empire that has been put on the market and its sponsorship deal with Home Depot expires next year. Coach Bruce Arena is a master motivator yet he’ll be pressed keeping his team eager and focused through another long season of league play, international callups, and Concacaf competition.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Beckham drew fans and TV viewers during his six seasons; his incredible array of curving, swerving, and dipping balls brightened up matches, as did his occasional spats with referees and opponents. He’ll be missed. But there’s still entertainment value in Magee, Donovan and Keane weaving their combinations, Juninho stepping up to smash a shot or play a through ball, and Gonzalez marshaling the back line. The Galaxy, like the Yankees, is a team to be loved or hated, and always monitored.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montreal | New England | New York | Philadelphia | Toronto FC | Chicago
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Real Salt Lake | Seattle | Vancouver | San Jose