This is the sixth piece of a seven-part series highlighting the most intriguing subplots of the 2011 MLS campaign. Our other MLS preview pieces are linked below:
Number Three: Why the Philadelphia Union May Be the Next Winner in A Great Sports City
EDITORS NOTE: This was a piece we ran by Neil W. Blackmon early in the season. Obviously, some new players developed- some, like Mike Magee, contributed more than we expected they would- and one man, David Beckham, had his finest year stateside. We thought ahead of the MLS final it would be good to view this again. New section in black at end.
2. Is it now or never for the LA Galaxy? And why Bruce Arena appears to be a huge Boston Celtics fan…
The Los Angeles Galaxy, winners of the 2010 Supporters Shield and 2009 MLS Cup finalists, kicked off what they hope will finally be a cup-winning MLS season with a 1-0 victory last week over the Seattle Sounders, and then found themselves stifled at home Sunday night in a frustrating 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution. The truth is, four points from the first two matches isn’t a bad start by any measure. That’s the truth. But the LA Galaxy, perhaps MLS’ most popular club, aren’t allowed to speak in immutable truths. They inhabit that strange space reserved for special clubs where total victory is the expectation, and “win every game” creeps past late-night pub or tailgate fantasy into the realm of accepted discourse. That’s the LA Galaxy reality, a world a bit separate from truth. Four points isn’t a cause to hit the panic button, but a fan base aching for championship validation wants more, and won’t be satisfied with a beginning nearly every other franchise in the league would accept. Perhaps this odd struggle between truth and reality that will color the entire campaign for the Galaxy in 2011 is affected by one other classic character, one lurking in the shadows and nudging the two against one another ever so gently. Perhaps this odd struggle is in fact a tale created by one of the historically great characters of novel and sport—Father Time. Perhaps, with Old Man Time creeping around the Home Depot Center, ever closer by the day, it is now or never for the LA Galaxy.
Let’s be clear: the impetus to win now with an acknowledgement that the alternative might be a short term “never” is not something Galaxy manager Bruce Arena, or most his players, for that matter, would ever admit out loud. Every franchise wants to believe the pieces are in place for sustained excellence, and that a rebuilding job and the lost year or years attendant to that task will sidestep their organization. Let’s be even more clear: those franchises are always wrong, and Father Time always wins. Yes, you can point to the Manchester United’s and Real Madrid’s of the world and counter the argument—but even with all their money , glamor and fame they can’t (and don’t) win trophies every season. Great American sporting franchises are even more susceptible: the Yankees, greatest of them all, lost most of a decade in the 1980’s. The Braves won only one overall championship during the most extended run of divisional excellence ever seen in American sport. Finally, they were overthrown, and six years later, they still are trying to return to the top of the mountain. The Cowboys have won one playoff game since their last Super Bowl win capped a decade of dominance. The point: Father Time has a way of having his way. In the end, that battle against time is why whether or not the LA Galaxy can will their way to a championship is the second-most intriguing MLS subplot for the 2011 campaign.
The good news: while the Galaxy won’t admit this could be their last chance, they have embraced the campaign as one that is championship or bust. Skipper Landon Donovan admitted as much in an interview with ESPN Los Angeles writer Scott French, noting that in terms of balance, the Galaxy may be one of the best MLS sides ever to take the field from 1-25. “We’re going to have a lot of players who aren’t playing every week that would start on most teams. We’re going to have a lot of guys who won’t make the 18[-player game roster] that might start on certain teams. … That makes us very good,” he added. In David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Juninho and the steady Chris Birchall, the Galaxy knew they would feature the league’s finest midfield entering the season. The question was who would provide the lethal finishing around the net to replace the departed Edson Buddle, who left for Germany. Losing one of the elite strikers in MLS can be crippling to any side, even the Galaxy, but there’s reason to believe in front of net the addition of Juan Pablo Angel makes the Galaxy even more deadly than they were with Buddle in the fray. Angel has scored goals everywhere he has ever played, be it Spain, Argentina, or with the New York Red Bulls, and with an embarrassment of service riches at his disposal, he could do so with even less of his trademark work rate this year at the Home Depot Center. To supplement Buddle, Arena brought in oft-injured but talented Toronto FC forward Chad Barrett, who he hopes will re-emerge as a scoring force back home in Los Angeles, where he starred at UCLA.
Further improving the offensive situation in LA is River Plate academy product Paolo Cardozo (particularly impressive last night against the Revolution off the bench) has joined the side and provides Arena with tremendous tactical flexibility, as there is not a spot in the field outside of central defense where the young Uruguayan can’t be deployed. Both Donovan and Arena agree that he is so good, in fact, that the only real question is where to deploy him. ““Paolo from a technical standpoint is maybe our most gifted player,” Donovan said. “We have to find a way to use him so that he can be effective.” Arena came short of that level of praise- but noted his immense talent and suggested that other than improving a bit on the defensive side of the ball, he can certainly help immediately and the question is really only where. Perhaps his substitution for Barrett at the hour mark last evening provides a hint of the early answer.
Defensively, the pieces are also in place for a championship. Todd Dunivant is an underrated passer, a smart player and a guy who rarely makes mistakes. Fullback Sean Franklin is as promising a right back as America has produced in a long time, and he goes mostly unnoticed in the public eye because of the presence of backline mate and MLS Best XI center back Omar Gonzalez, who will steady things in front of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who remains one of MLS’ finest goalkeepers. All in all, the pieces are in place for a run at all three domestic trophies as well as a shot at the CONCACAF Champions’ League knockout rounds, a feat the Galaxy should covet after last year’s Puerto Rican embarrassment.
And yet, Father Time lingers. If this nucleus can’t deliver a title now, then when? As much as you read about the Galaxy’s young pieces: Franklin, Cardozo, Gonzalez- the fact remains the starpower corps is aging or quite possibly on their way out of MLS. Donovan is always a threat to leave for Europe, and after a much needed rest this offseason which saw him return with a John Boehner tan, this could be the final run in MLS, and in reality, should be. At 28, his European window is closing. David Beckham is in the final year of his contract, and despite various academies and soccer programs he has started stateside, a return to England to finish his career seems to be what Becks prefers. If we’ve learned anything during Becks’ tenure in MLS, we learned David Beckham cares most about David Beckham. He’s charitable and friendly and press-savvy, yes—but in the end it is fair to suggest he’ll come back to America one day, but only after he plays again in England.
Frankie Hejduk, cult hero of many a soccer blog and fan and former UCLA superstar, was also brought into the fold, presumably to add depth to the backline and another leadership presence in a clubhouse that mixes vets with kids who don’t shave regularly. It’s a nice story, but you wonder how much Hejduk has in the tank. Ditto for Juan Pablo Angel, who with 61 MLS goals is a force but is also no spring chicken. With Chad Barrett struggling early, a productive Angel seems essential to championship aspirations and at his age, that involves some level of risk. The recurrent theme in this picture: the Galaxy, while on paper younger, are still at base a team that will rely on aging superstars and league posterboy Landon Donovan, and every year they rely on that formula is another year Father Time edges closer to control in Carson, California.
One wonders if Brooklyn Bruce Arena is really a closet Celtics fan. It certainly seems to be the model he’s chosen to build this particular unit. Three unabashed superstars: Pierce, Garnett, Allen. One, arguably two, young, dynamic talents (Rondo, Davis). Mix and match, hope for health. Unlikely, sure—but the parallels are striking. Two franchises with young talents who aren’t quite there, staking their championship hopes on grizzled vets who they hope age (and win) gracefully. For the C’s and their Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, it just might work, but young upstarts like the Chicago Bulls are complicating matters. What’s more– that Big Three already have their championship. This run is about cementing a legacy. For the Galaxy, and their Big Three of Donovan, Beckham and Angel, it might work, but the presence of the past two league champions in their own conference in Real Salt Lake and Colorado complicate matters. For both teams, chances may be running out.
Not bad, right? No- enough patting ourselves on the back. This storyline was somewhat predictable, save the Robbie Keane turn of events. What’s still true is the following: this might be the last run at glory for Landon Donovan and David Beckham. At stake this weekend is not only a defining memory of Beckham’s time in MLS, but also perhaps a final window for longtime American starlet Landon Donovan. Is he the finest field player ever to wear an American shirt? Perhaps. One could argue Clint Dempsey gains on him every day. But still- Landon Donovan was MLS before attendance outpaced the NBA and NHL on a per game basis (Seattle inflation be damned– South Beach inflation checks any risk that’s an outlier). So what of Sunday for Landon Donovan?
Well- there’s this. Reports abound that Everton are eyeing Landon for a second loan run. And observant US soccer fans or casual ones with Google understand that Donovan has time left on his MLS contract. Here’s the rub: Donovan will turn 30 in March. He was injured on and off this campaign and when he fought through it (he did- those that suggested he wasn’t tough are foolish, but foolish LD critics have been around almost a decade now) his legs looked tired and his game suffered. Sure, there were goals early, but his involvement and influence on games was diminished at times. That’s not to suggest Landon Donovan isn’t still the finest player in the league: on the contrary– even with an improved league Donovan is a more polished and savvy player– he’s the finest player in the league by a larger margin. But that’s precisely why we’d argue Landon Donovan is the story this weekend.
Landon Donovan carried the league for a few seasons. Casual viewers now tune in to watch any number of MLS sides– they used to tune in to watch Landon Donovan. The league has, with designated players and an influx of young talent, nearly (emphasize nearly) outgrown its own need for Landon Donovan. As such, with Beckham likely set to exit, and a Galaxy team whose star corps is aging but whose youth corps is stable playing for a title this weekend– wouldn’t this be a perfect time for Landon Donovan to say thank you and you are welcome to Major League Soccer. Win a title with David Beckham. Resolve an unfinished chapter of the brilliant Beckham Experiment. Host a trophy. Accept a loan. And then, shock and awe– work to make it permanent.
Is there remaining time on the contract? Sure. But contracts can be purchased. Clearly they can’t be purchased by the likes of Bill Kenwright– but at 29 and still an elite player– they can by a club with some coin in the coffers. And if Major League Soccer cares as much about Landon Donovan as he has about it, they might be willing to let him go. There was a long time– maybe even a very recent time– where Landon Donovan and MLS were symbiotic partners– they literally needed each other to breathe. A championship against the Dynamo this weekend in front of a home crowd might be the signature moment when both Landon and a league realize that’s simply not the case anymore. Just a thought.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.