The Galaxy's biological clock is ticking. Last season the Los Angeles Galaxy were already considered old — a collection of mostly veterans at the skill positions who relied more on experience and tactical discipline than speed or fitness to win games. It's a good formula, and the Galaxy showed it by dominating at times and finishing the season with the Supporters' Shield before bowing out in the semifinals.
But it's a temporary formula. In the blink of an eye, a veteran team can turn into just an old, slow team. And the disintegration of the Galaxy has already begun. Edson Buddle, the pillar of the team's offense, has moved off to second division German football to take his last shot in Europe. Dema Kovalenko, a midfield reducer who forced you to keep your stretcher-bearers on speed-dial, was let go by the Galaxy and decided that the last career he'd end would be his own. Arena made big moves to plug the gaps, most notably by bringing in DP Juan Pablo Angel to replace Buddle.
But Angel's 35. New signing Frankie Hejduk is 36. Defensive stalwart Berhalter will be 38 before the season is over. Beckham's contract is up after this year (actually in the middle of this year. More on that later.) Donovan still has a couple of years on his contract, but it's clear to anyone who's paid attention that he wants to play at the top level in Europe, and after his showing at the World Cup and on loan to Everton you can believe that the top level wants him.
Up to now the league has bent over backwards and then done a headstand to make LA the jewel in its tinfoil crown. The season after the Galaxy missed the playoffs for the first time in their history (2006), the Designated Player rule was invented so that the Galaxy could sign international phenomenon and occasional soccer player David Beckham. Despite the rule that a team could only have one DP, Landon Donovan was grandfathered in with a DP-sized contract for three years so the Galaxy could continue to sparkle.
But despite the cap shenanigans and the steady hand of former national team coach Bruce Arena, LA couldn't overcome the final hurdle and win another MLS Cup. They lost in penalties to wild card team Real Salt Lake in 2009 and then despite winning the Supporters' Shield were swept aside by David Ferreira's FC Dallas in last season's semifinals. And with the Galaxy's inability to recover their former glory and the limited success in fostering an LA rivalry with Chivas USA, the MLS brain trust has begun to turn its lidless eye to other potential jewels, like the suddenly frothing soccer-mad Northwest and on the other coast the New York Red Bulls, featuring Thierry Henry, a shiny new stadium, and the Cosmos lurking in the headlines.
So the 2011 season may represent LA's last chance to prove that it is still the premier MLS franchise. And the only way to do so is with a championship. That quest starts at Qwest Field on Tuesday.
From the Seattle Sounders' perspective, this game is about redemption. For all the hype that has accompanied the introduction of the Cascadia Rivalry to MLS this season, the Timbers and Whitecaps have a long way to go before they can do as much damage to Seattle as the Galaxy did last season.
The first matchup was at home, and the 4-0 decimation capped off a disastrous opening month-and-a-half to the season. The result was so offensive that the Seattle front office issued what it called a refund for the game — never mind that it was actually just a discount on the theoretical price of 2011 Season Tickets, which hadn't even been determined yet. It's the symbolism that counts.
The second match was an only slightly less demoralizing 3-1 result in Carson City — the fifth loss in six games for the Sounders, and one that nearly ended their playoff hopes in mid-July. Seattle went on to beat a reserve-heavy Galaxy side three days later in the U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal in Tukwila, but the damage in the MLS season had been done. It was only through a historically successful second half of the season that the Sounders clawed back into the playoffs.
And who awaited them in that first playoff matchup? Well, thanks to some shenanigans down the ladder, Colorado got to wander over to the paper-thin Eastern side of the bracket, while Seattle was matched up against LA. Sounders fans watched hunched over in slow-burning agony as the Galaxy showed in both legs that they had a plan to beat the Rave Green and had no problem executing it. They shut down the wing speed that was the foundation of the Sounders' attack and used Omar Gonzalez to eliminate any danger in the air. The center was left open, but Seattle was playing with two defense-minded midfielders and Montero and Nkufo were forced to track back 30 and 40 yards at a time to pick the ball up in positions where they were no threat to goal. Zakuani's 86th minute goal in the second leg gave us a glimmer of hope at the time, but in retrospect only served to save us the embarrassment of being shut out in four consecutive playoff legs.
The agony was renewed the next week when LA's shortcomings were exposed by FC Dallas. There's some slight solace in being beat by an unbeatable team. But being dominated by a team that then gets mowed over at home only adds to the suffering. Juninho was left stranded all game long in the Galaxy's otherwise wide open midfield, which David Ferreira and friends were happy to skip through and then around the slow-footed Omar Gonzalez for a comfortable 3-0 win. The Galaxy showed themselves beatable and FC Dallas gave us the blueprint. Now do we have the players to follow it?
The Sounders' quest at Qwest is to pick themselves up and impose their will on a team that isn't sure it has another year in the tank.
- Fredy Montero vs Omar Gonzalez - Not many players are going to beat Omar Gonzalez in the air, and neither Montero nor Nkufo are in that group. But Big O has shown that his speed and footwork aren't stellar and he can be dribbled around. The danger is in Montero coming too deep to get the ball. Even he can't get around Gonzalez if he starts the attack 50 yards from goal.
- Landon Donovan vs Leo Gonzalez - Donovan will show up on both the right and left flanks throughout a game, but I'm guessing the more dangerous attacks will come down our defensive left, as we've seen all preseason. Especially with Zakuani likely to be out of the match with an injury, Leo is going to need help and discipline in controlling Donovan's speed. You'll probably see a lot of Hurtado drifting over to help out. Hopefully it's enough.
- Erik Friberg/Brad Evans vs Chris Birchall - Evans plays the central midfield role that could be the key to unlocking the Galaxy in a way that the Sounders couldn't do last season. If he's out of the opener with an injury, that position likely falls to newcomer Friberg. Birchall looks like LA's best hope to play that holding role that will shore up the midfield and free Juninho to join the attack. The match may come down to the battle between them.