Galaxy taking hot streak into playoffs

It took far longer than expected for Los Angeles to embark upon its journey to defend MLS Cup.

Sure, the Galaxy started its campaign at the same time every other team did. It just didn’t feel like it because the dominant displays from the double-winning side last year were nowhere to be found.

Instead of imposing its will on other teams, the Galaxy struggled to find its rhythm and produce the necessary results. There were reasons behind the poor start: distractions posed by David Beckham’s Olympic saga; Robbie Keane’s impending Euro 2012 duties with the Republic of Ireland; and, of course, the crippling knee injury to Omar Gonzalez and the corresponding defensive uncertainty for a group so reliant on that stable foundation. Those issues were there for all to see – but the expected reply to those concerns wasn’t.

By the end of May, this high-priced team filled with stars found itself rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference. The distractions still lingered with new issues seemingly cropping up at every turn, but the situation had deteriorated to the point where it simply wasn’t acceptable anymore. It was time to fix it.

“We had one thing after another snowballing itself,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said during a conference call on Tuesday. “It was difficult to get the team in a rhythm. Basically, throughout the year, we never had a full lineup. All we did was plug away from week-to-week and game-to-game to try to find the right way to be successful with the group we had.”

Slowly but surely, matters improved. Three consecutive wins in June pushed the Galaxy away from the bottom of the table and signaled the impending second-half resurgence. Beckham coped with his omission from Team GB and improved his form before Olympic commitments and injuries reduced his second-half influence. Keane partnered with Landon Donovan to form a devastating duo up front when both players were available. Gonzalez returned well ahead of schedule in July to stiffen the defense. Several other contributors picked up some of the slack to offer additional support.

Arena may not have had all of his players in the fold at once, but he possessed a deep squad that started to resemble the outfit he led to a title a season before. The haul of 34 points from the final 17 games and the improved defensive performances reinforced the notion that this Galaxy side had found its footing after a difficult opening period.

“I think there’s a lot to be said about the group and how they dealt with adversity, came back and had good performances to position ourselves to be back in the hunt for MLS Cup,” Arena said.

Plenty of work still remains to sustain the recent success through the postseason. Not even the productive late stages of the campaign could garner enough points to secure one of the top three seeds in the Western Conference. A Knockout Round game against Vancouver on Thursday night makes the task more difficult because it adds another match to an already congested schedule, and raises the prospect of playing five games between Nov. 1 and Nov. 18 just to reach the final.

Arena will have to rely on the depth cultivated during a successful run through CONCACAF Champions League group stage this fall to manage those concerns if they occur. Those potential issues remain mere conjecture for now with the previously struggling Whitecaps set to visit the Home Depot Center after a morale-boosting 0-0 draw at Real Salt Lake on Saturday night.

“They’re going to come here with a lot of confidence, but it’s our home ground so we have to be confident going into the game,” Beckham said after the Galaxy’s 1-0 victory over Seattle on Sunday night. “But we know Vancouver are a dangerous team, they’ve got dangerous players, and they’re capable of getting a result wherever they play so we have to be on top of our game.”

The performance against Seattle suggested the Galaxy is inching closer to that point. Edson Buddle’s recent return from a knee injury offers a more robust option up front to complement the incisive runs and the potent final touch offered by Keane. Beckham returned from an ankle knock to partner the quietly critical Juninho in central midfield with Donovan (now back from his own knee issues) and September signing Christian Wilhelmsson supplying plenty of ingenuity and service from the wide areas.

Gonzalez marshals the defense in tandem with two solid fullbacks in Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin and a rookie center back in Tommy Meyer thrown into a difficult spot due to the left knee injury suffered by regular starter A.J. DeLaGarza. Josh Saunders returned from a midseason absence for personal reasons to eradicate any concerns in goal. Mike Magee and Marcelo Sarvas provide additional proven and tested options if Arena needs or wants to alter his setup depending on the problems posed by a particular opponent or set of circumstances.

With that sort of depth and quality in tow, the Galaxy stand out as one of the prime contenders to win MLS Cup. DeLaGarza’s return at some stage would bolster the cause, but this group is nonetheless capable of generating the momentum and rhythm required to progress through the postseason.

“We’re a lot closer,” Arena said when asked about finding that rhythm. “These things, you’re never quite sure. This is a whole different competition now from the last 34 games. It will test us in terms of the depth of our team and the fitness of our players. I think we’re coming close.”

The next few weeks will determine whether the Galaxy will reach that point in time to secure another shot at glory. For now, one thing is undeniably certain: the title defense is well and truly underway.