LA Galaxy set to test MLS’ limits

The 2012 MLS Cup final is nine months away, which makes anointing a runaway pick to win the championship seem silly. At least, it seems silly until you consider what LA Galaxy have been able to pull off this winter.

The Galaxy managed to keep David Beckham and re-signed Edson Buddle, and now the news comes that the team is bringing back Brazilian midfielder Juninho after initially appearing to have lost him. It all has the Galaxy looking capable of an even better 2012 than their outstanding 2011, even considering the loss of all-star defender Omar Gonzalez for most of the year with a torn ACL.

Bruce Arena has combined his unmatched mastery of the MLS salary cap with AEG’s deep pockets and a little bit of luck to put together as strong a squad as you can build within the league’s financial parameters – the kind of MLS team we might not see again for some time (unless the league makes some structural changes).

To some, there is no reasonable way to explain how the Galaxy’s salary cap could fit the return of Beckham, the re-signing of Buddle, the addition of Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, the impact of a full season of Robbie Keane’s designated player salary, the signing of Josh Saunders and Sean Franklin, the surprising returns of Juninho and Leonardo, and the lower-profile acquisitions of players like Pat Noonan and Andrew Boyens.

Such moves have led to the resurfacing of decade-long conspiracy theories that MLS favors the Galaxy and that LA doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of the teams. Such theories had more teeth a decade ago, when AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company, owned a majority of the teams in the league. In the MLS of today, with so many ownership groups involved now and so many owners having so much at stake, giving the Galaxy preferential treatment would lead to a very public and very messy revolt; or, at the very least, some changes at MLS headquarters.

A closer look at the Galaxy’s winter maneuvering provides ample evidence of just how it all came together. It began with the trading of Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. The decision to keep Saunders over Ricketts was made in 2011, after Saunders took the starting job away and helped the Galaxy win a title. Saunders’ considerably lower salary made it an even easier decision to trade away Ricketts, the 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

Dealing Ricketts to the Montreal Impact for what sources tell FOX Soccer was $200,000 effectively created an almost $400,000 salary cap windfall for the Galaxy (Ricketts was due to make around $200,000 in salary). That amount more than covers the return of Buddle as well as Saunders’ new contract.

The Galaxy were also rewarded for their success, receiving $300,000 in allocation from MLS for winning the Supporters Shield and their participation in the CONCACAF Champions League. Those funds, coupled with $150,000 in allocation the team already had banked, will help the team cover the costs of player raises as well as offset the impact of Keane counting as a full-season designated player (he counts $335,000 towards the team’s salary cap, as opposed to $167,500 as a mid-season acquisition in 2011).

Los Angeles also shed significant salary in the off-season with the retirements/departures of Chris Birchall, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter, Jovan Kirovski and Dasan Robinson – five players who made a combined $535,000 in guaranteed salary in 2011. These moves helped pave the way for additions like Sarvas, Pat Noonan, Andrew Boyens and Nick Noble.

The Galaxy also needed a dose of good luck in building their roster. The club couldn’t have planned for Edson Buddle to run out of options in Europe or for Juninho to have a falling-out with his coach at Sao Paulo, but what the Galaxy did was keep enough money available to pounce on both players when they became available.

What should be noted about LA’s impressive winter, and what too often gets overlooked as a key to maximizing the possibilities of team-building on a budget, is that there is no substitute for the basics: making smart moves and avoiding mistakes. There are rosters throughout MLS cluttered with overpaid players and international busts, and the list is long of teams that have swung and missed in the international player market.

In a league where teams have a limited number of mechanisms to improve their rosters, mistakes on the player personnel front are that much tougher to overcome. Wasted salaries can doom teams. It is no coincidence that the teams that have done the best job landing gems on the international market (Seattle, Real Salt Lake and LA) are now the best teams in the league, while teams that have had woeful track records in recent years on the international market have struggled mightily (like D.C. United, New England and Toronto FC).

The financial might of AEG has obviously helped the Galaxy shop in a better player market, where players like David Beckham and Robbie Keane are safer bets to make an impact in MLS than most, but smart signings like Ricketts and Juninho in the foreign market coupled with shrewd acquisitions like Todd Dunivant, Mike Magee and Josh Saunders have as much to do with the Galaxy’s unprecedented recent success as Phil Anschutz’s deep pockets.

But the Galaxy aren’t done maneuvering. They must still shed some salary to fit everything into the league’s salary cap, and the player most likely to be on the way out is Chad Barrett, who has suddenly become the league’s most expensive back-up striker after the return of Buddle to the Galaxy. The Galaxy will need to deal Barrett before the end of the month, and may wind up having to eat some of Barrett’s salary and dangle a draft pick to convince a team to take his sizable salary.

Once that final deal is squared away, the Galaxy will be left with a team stronger than the one that just completed what was arguably the best season in league history. Only the loss of Gonzalez to a torn ACL is keeping some from calling the Galaxy unstoppable, but it is not a stretch to say that the Galaxy could boast the strongest team in league history, particularly when Gonzalez returns in the fall.

The 2012 LA Galaxy has one major weakness, though. The team is leveraged to the max and built to win this year, and there is very little chance of the Galaxy being able to avoid having to dismantle the squad next winter. The Galaxy have clearly made it a priority to try to win the CONCACAF Champions League and a second MLS Cup before having to lose key pieces and rebuild.

It is a fate that past great teams have had to endure in a league where long-term success is ultimately punished by the strains of the salary cap. The Galaxy will be the next powerhouse to be dismantled, and even Arena and AEG’s wallet won’t be able to stop that.

The inevitability is troubling to some around MLS who feel successful teams are punished far too much for doing well while mediocre to bad teams are rewarded for failing with high draft picks and allocation money. There is a growing divide among MLS teams, with one side believing the league should do more to reward success – that giving teams the capability of sustaining success for longer periods of time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There is that other side, though, the side that fears what might become of MLS if such changes are made to the league’s current structure. The worry sees a league of clear haves and have nots, a league that might begin to resemble the English Premier League (where the same big-market traditional powerhouses are almost always at the top of the standings) and the same small market, small-spending teams are constantly fighting for survival.

That discussion is already taking place, and it isn’t difficult to figure out which teams are leading which sides. The Galaxy aren’t waiting for change, though. They have taken the current MLS rules and mastered them. They have built a team equipped to be better than any previous MLS team.

A year ago, LA looked like a team constructed to make history, and it did just that, winning the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup while reaching the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

Now, the Galaxy have an even stronger team: A team not only capable of making history, but one that just might make MLS reconsider what is possible.

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