MLS Cup or bust for the Galaxy
After two years of fielding championship contending teams that fell short of the MLS Cup title, the Los Angeles Galaxy sent a clear message on Wednesday that 2011 is a Cup or Bust year.
The Galaxy acquired Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel and veteran defender Frankie Hejduk on a busy day in MLS trading. The league’s re-entry draft made several experienced players available and the Galaxy took full advantage, trading up to secure the rights to Angel before sending newly-acquired Luke Sassano to Sporting Kansas City for the rights to Hejduk.
Those moves, along with the surprising trade sending homegrown player Tristan Bowen to rival Chivas USA for allocation money, made the team considerably older, but also more experienced and a strong contender to win its first MLS Cup title since 2005.
The Galaxy still has to reach agreement on deals with Angel and Hejduk, but if Arena can convince two players he knows all too well that the 2011 Galaxy could be something special, then getting them to sign shouldn’t be a problem.
By landing two players in their mid-30s, and dealing away the Galaxy’s first homegrown player, a 19-year old forward prospect with a bright future, for salary cap space, the Galaxy signaled a clear intent to end its five-year title drought.
Why the urgency? David Beckham is entering the final year of his MLS contract while Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle are in their primes and there is no guarantee either of them will want to stick around too much longer beyond 2011.
There also has to be pressure on Arena to deliver a title in his third year since taking over a disaster of a team. He has transformed Los Angeles, turning the club into one of the league’s best, but his third MLS Cup title, and the team’s third, remains elusive.
Some would argue that the Galaxy needed to get younger, not older, as evidenced by the team’s lethargic showing in a 3-0 thrashing by a younger and faster FC Dallas team in the Western Conference final. As much as fresh legs would have helped L.A. against Dallas, a deadly finisher and some more experience in the back could have helped as well.
Enter Angel and Hejduk. Angel struggled in the second half of 2010, but he did so after learning in mid-season that New York no longer wanted him. He also struggled in a lineup that didn’t play to his strength in the air. The Galaxy, with David Beckham and Landon Doovan providing service and Edson Buddle keeping defenses honest, gives Angel the perfect setting to try and match the 19-goal haul he produced for Arena in 2007 -- their only season together in New York.
Hejduk’s impact may not be as significant on the field, but off the field he can still give the Galaxy a locker room leader. He could also benefit from not having to play as many games as in year’s past, with Sean Franklin and A.J. De La Garza providing cover at right back and central defense.
As impressive as the additions of Angel and Hejduk will be if completed, perhaps the biggest news came from Arena today when he said Landon Donovan would be staying with the team all year. Having Donovan get some well-deserved rest should help him finisher stronger than he did in 2010, when he looked clearly fatigued by season’s end. Of course it should be noted that Arena also once said that David Beckham wouldn’t be going to AC Milan on loan before the first of two Milan loans for the English star, so a Donovan loan to England shouldn’t be ruled out just yet.
Another possibility for the Galaxy is the addition of Ronaldinho, who has long been rumored as a Galaxy target. If the Galaxy can find a way to squeeze Ronaldinho under the team salary cap, while also convincing Angel to play for less than DP money, then the Galaxy would officially become the most star-studded team in league history. Realistically though, it would be all but impossible to fit Beckham, Donovan, Angel and Ronaldinho under the salary cap, at least not without Angel taking a major pay cut and either Ronaldinho postponing his arrival until summer or Donovan or Beckham going on an extended loan to help cut their 2011 MLS salary cap hit in half.
With or without Ronaldinho, Los Angeles will be the team to beat in 2011. If Donovan does stay, and if Angel and Hejduk do join Arena’s Galaxy, then it will be tough not to make Los Angeles the heavy favorites to win the 2011 MLS Cup. It won’t be a sure thing though, not in an MLS with such an unpredictable playoff format, and not with a team relying on as many aging players as the Galaxy.
Arena will take that chance, especially with players he has coached and enjoyed success with before. For that reason, Arena will deserve a lion’s share of the credit if Los Angeles can finally win a third MLS Cup, and he will merit his share of the criticism if the Galaxy’s push for the 2011 MLS Cup fails.
RE-ENTRY DRAFT WINNERS AND LOSERS
A week after one of the most uneventful drafts in the history of sports (two players chosen in what amounted to a two-minute long “draft”), the second phase of the MLS re-entry draft produced one of the most dizzying, exciting and head-scratching flurries of transactions in MLS history.
So who were the winners and losers on Wednesday? The Galaxy came away the clear winner, but was hardly alone. Here are the teams that did the best and worst on Wednesday ...
Chivas USA: How does a team with no team president, head coach or VP of Soccer Operations still manage to have a good day? Well, the club scored a top young prospect in Tristan Bowan from rival Los Angeles and added a proven veteran defender in the re-entry Draft in Jimmy Conrad. Considering the team’s plethora of needs, Bowen and Conrad are a dream tandem.
D.C. United: Expected by some to go after one of the higher-priced players available, D.C. landed a less expensive but productive option in veteran striker Josh Wolff. The former U.S. World Cup striker brings a wealth of experience to a young team, and he won’t overburden the salary cap, leaving more funds for the team to hit the international market with. It didn’t hurt D.C. that no team drafted D.C. legend Jaime Moreno, who has stated he isn’t ready to retire yet despite being let go by D.C.
Chicago Fire: With Wilman Conde looking to be heading to Mexico, the Fire sorely needed a veteran central defender to anchor the back-line. Enter Cory Gibbs, who didn’t have his best year in 2010, but still has the skills and experience to help fill the void left by the Colombian’s departure.
Sporting Kansas City: The Wizards lost a pair of key veterans in Jimmy Conrad and Josh Wolff and have nothing to show for it except little-known midfielder/defender Luke Sassano from New York. The club has a new look, and is turning to new faces, but it still has to hurt to lose Conrad and Wolff for nothing.
Philadelphia Union: As if losing Shea Salinas and Alejandro Moreno in the expansion draft wasn’t enough, now the Union lose two more players in Chris Seitz and Fred. The Union may not miss Seitz, especially if the team signs Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, but that won’t erase the fact that Philadelphia lost Seitz for nothing just a year after paying Real Salt Lake a king’s ransom for his services. You also have the fact that Philadelphia passed on the chance to add Angel, something that could come back to haunt the Union.
New York Red Bulls: The Red Bulls had no plans to re-sign Juan Pablo Angel, but to have him go to one of the top teams they will contend with for the 2011 MLS Cup title has to sting. It could make for one heck of a storyline in the 2011 MLS Cup final.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.