Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.
No. 2 in the West is the LA Galaxy:
Significant additions and subtractions: LA’s offseason may have dominated the headlines, but ultimately there’s been very little change. Eight of the 11 players who would have been first choice at season’s end return to Bruce Arena’s starting XI.
The biggest loss is David Beckham, but unlike his off-field brand, Beckham’s replaceable between the lines. So is Christian Wilhelmsson, whose brief cameo in MLS ended with a ring. And last year’s starter in goal, Josh Saunders, was allowed to leave for Salt Lake.
That’s where the Galaxy made their one significant addition. Carlo Cudicini, a long-time backup for Chelsea and Tottenham, moves into LA’s starting XI. The last time the now 39-year-old played more than 10 games in a league season was 2003-04.
Strengths: Questions about Cudicini aside, the defense looks great. The team will get a full year from MVP candidate Omar Gonzalez. A.J. DeLaGarza returns after missing the end of last season. With Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin, LA competes with San Jose and Real Salt Lake for the league’s best fullback tandem.
In attack, LA has another stellar tandem. Once Landon Donovan is back — Arena’s said he should start playing in April — he and Robbie Keane will form the league’s most potent attack. Perhaps it won’t be the most prolific, but as we saw last fall, there’s no duo more capable of executing when it counts.
Pressure points: I’m not sold on Carlo Cudicini in goal, though it seems a reasonable gamble. It’s not like he costs Designated Player money, something you often have to give up to lure a player from Europe. But this is a player coming to a new league who, far past his prime, hasn’t played a meaningful game in three seasons. Over the last decade, he’s averaged 4.6 appearances per season. So let’s just say he’s a question mark.
The team also needs to replace Beckham’s distribution. Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas will be fine in the middle, and Michael Stephens (and eventually, Mike Magee) will do a job wide right, but when this team gets bogged down and has trouble getting through the middle third, they no longer have Beckham to take over. LA need to develop an alternative so they’re not purely reliant on Donovan’s ability to steer them in transition.
Difference maker: No matter what happens in midfield and attack, the team has Gonzalez, something they were missing at the beginning of last season, The MLS Cup MVP is going to help Cudicini’s transition, and in those opening months where the team’s best creator is still working himself into shape, Gonzalez and the defense will keep LA in every game. In a conference full of strong No. 9s, Gonzalez is LA’s equalizer.
Potential breakout player: With his midfield partner in Paris, Juninho will have more to do. That may be a good thing. The 23-year-old chipped in seven goals last season, but this year, he’ll have to play a bigger part in the team’s buildup and distribution. He was hardly lax in those areas before, but with Beckham gone, the Brazilian’s contributions become vital. Where as last year he was able to rely on Beckham’s presence when he surged forward, this year Juninho may have to do some of the orchestrating.
That’s more responsibility, but Juninho’s can handle it. Tasked with having a greater presence, the overshadowed talent could develop into an All-Star.
Bottom line: Number two in the West may be too low. When we originally ordered the West, San Jose’s injury issues were still a little up in the air. Now, LA looks like more than just the team you never want to face in the playoffs. Even before acquiring another Designated Player, the Galaxy are as strong as anybody in the West.