By Ridge Mahoney
The faithful went to StubHub Center on the opening weekend of the 2014 MLS season hoping to see signs that last year’s malaise had dissipated.
Instead, the new season started just as the old one had ended; defeat by Real Salt Lake. After more than an hour of goalless play, RSL scored a goal that was disallowed, presumably because Luke Mulholland had kicked the ball from the grasp of Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo while booting it into the net.
No matter. Four minutes later. RSL scored a goal that counted, and held on to win, 1-0. Just as had been the case in last year’s conference semifinals, the Galaxy had been shut out in an important match. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the league’s most dynamic combo last year when they combined for 26 goals and 20 assists during the regular season, were active but neither could connect.
The Galaxy had earmarked a broader attack as one of its offseason priorities. In addition to signing Keane to an extension, the Galaxy added forwards Rob Friend and Samuel, and wide midfielder Stefan Ishizaki. Management and the coaching staff determined that too heavy a burden had been placed on Homegrown rookie Gyasi Zardes, who tried valiantly to fill the gap left when Mike Magee was traded to Chicago. Injuries and fitness issues rendered the player acquired for Magee, Robbie Rogers, as a non-factor.
“Leading into this season, we conducted -- especially on the field -- a full evaluation on last year,” said president Chris Klein shortly before the opening game. “We demand very high standards at the Galaxy; we won two championships in a row and it was our intention to contend for a third. That didn’t happen but we advanced out of the group stages of Champions League, which was a positive, and we were able to not only sign Landon to an extension, being able to re-sign Omar [Gonzalez] and Bruce Arena, and we have Robbie [Keane, who received a contract extension last week], gave us high hopes going into 2014.
“In saying that, part of Bruce’s evaluation of last year was that we had a little bit too much inexperience and too much of a reliance on Robbie and Landon in terms of offensive production. To be able to add Rob Friend and Samuel and Stefan Ishizaki, and along with Gyasi having a very sharp preseason gives us a lot of hope going into 2014.”
There’s certainly legitimate cause for hope. Ishizaki, unlike Zardes, is a true wide midfielder, adept at setting up defenders with feints and moves, then blowing past them to supply service. The 6-foot-5 Friend had been on MLS radar screens since leaving UC Santa Barbara after the 2002 collegiate season and heading off to Europe, where he scored more than 80 goals for clubs in Norway, the Netherlands and Germany. Samuel has already scored his first goal for the club, netting in a 1-0 defeat of Tijuana last week when Keane let a Marcelo Sarvas cross carom so far off his body it ran to Samuel, who drilled it into the net.
The flukiness of the goal and a few opportunities that were squandered against Xolos cast a bit of a pall over the victory. The Galaxy put just three shots on goal. Also, the defense was far from airtight, and several sparking saves by Penedo were necessary to secure the 1-0 lead. Not many conclusions can be drawn from two competitive matches, and it’s likely fans will have to wait a while to see if the pieces truly fit.
Though the Galaxy has put a high priority on the Champions League, it faces an arduous regular season. The value of Samuel, Friend and Ishizaki probably won’t be known until midseason, after Donovan and Gonzalez have returned from the World Cup. Friend’s size makes him an inviting target for crosses and set plays, but he’s 33, so Arena will have to manage him carefully through the hot summer months. Both Donovan and Keane faded a bit in last year’s playoffs, and just weren’t sharp enough in the two games against RSL.
The addition of Samuel gives the Galaxy a spine of four Brazilians with him up top, Sarvas paired with Juninho in central midfield, and defender Leonardo anchoring the back line. Yet the key may be how much wide play the Galaxy can generate; the flank work of Magee and David Beckham played a major role in those 2011 and 2012 titles.
Donovan has started the season as a wide midfielder but replacements will be needed when international duty or fatigue takes him out of the lineup. Zardes played a lot on the left last year and started 2014 on the right, and is still learning how to fully utilize his strength and speed in a wide position. Ishizaki put in a lively 21 minutes after replacing Samuel against Xolos and at 31, has a good sense of the runs and angles specific to playing out wide.
Just over a year ago, former AEG president Tim Leiweke, who had rocketed the league into a new dimension by signing Beckham, ended his long association with billionaire Phil Anschutz. The sports world was stunned and concerns about the team's future were raised. Yet the Galaxy pressed on; it welcomed back Donovan from his long hiatus, it re-signed Keane, it re-signed Arena, it upgraded Gonzalez to a Designated Player deal, it started up a Galaxy II reserve team, and took steps to improve its quality on the field, especially up front.
“The Galaxy’s bigger than Tim, it’s bigger than David Beckham, it’s bigger than Chris Klein, it’s bigger than Bruce Arena,” says Klein. “We have that thought all along: ‘This will continue.’ The ownership pieces are still there. Certainly on the field with Bruce and everything that he brings, we’re fully confident there.”