Soccer America
Tuesday April 21st, 2009

You can't blame coach Bruce Arena, Los Angeles Galaxy players and the rest of the organization if they'd rather not talk about David Beckham. No doubt they've got plenty of problems dealing with the here and now rather than what happens later. But rather soon that deal will come around.

By hard-balling Beckham and AC Milan, the Galaxy, MLS and AEG have surely toughened up their image abroad and carved out the best possible economic solution. Milan has to pay more than $3 million to keep Beckham and he'll have to fork out at least that much come October to buy out his contract.

And since he can't play in Europe until January anyway, he might be persuaded to stay with the Galaxy long enough to play a friendly or two -- under a revenue-sharing deal, of course -- before he heads back to Italy. In any case, his return will further disrupt a team that conclusively proved the past two seasons it doesn't deal well with changes, great or small.

Rather than deploy veteran Chris Klein at right midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation against San Jose last weekend, Arena used Eddie Lewis and Sean Franklin as wide midfielders in a 3-5-2 formation. And while both produced promising moments of their specialties -- Lewis of the left-footed bending cross, Franklin of speed and aggression -- seldom did the Galaxy look anything close to a good team.

Most of the time it looked about as mediocre as the Quakes, who have their own issues in the second year after expansion, especially in light of how well conference rival Seattle has started off its expansion quest. Losers of two straight, the Sounders still are 3-2 and in second place.

Lacking the injured Edson Buddle and suspended Alan Gordon, Arena started Mike Magee and Jovan Kirovski against San Jose last weekend, and neither of them finished the 1-1 draw. Substitute Bryan Jordan came on to head in the equalizer and threaten again on a bold near-post run that left him and defender Ryan Cochrane shaking out the cobwebs from a hard collision.

On paper, Landon Donovan was listed as the attacking midfielder in the hole behind Magee and Kirovski. In effect, they occasionally switched roles, with Kirovski performing reasonably well as a target man, bringing down long balls and drawing fouls, but Magee seldom contributed to a threatening attack. Communication breakdowns between Donovan and the other two throttled a few sequences, and Donovan himself squandered a prime opportunity by trying to pass from a good shooting location inside the penalty arc.

In their nine games combined, San Jose and Los Angeles have played seven at home, and compiled just eight points. This would not be critical in MLS 2005, with expansion Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake lagging at the bottom of a weak six-team Western Conference, and a playoff slot guaranteed to the fourth-place finisher. With the ninth-best record, Los Angeles snuck into the playoffs and rolled to the title. But that was then.

Instead, only the top two teams in each conference are guaranteed a slot, and the other four playoff berths go to teams on the basis of standings points. Yes, it's very early, but already Los Angeles is last and that's after playing its first three games at home.

Both Chivas USA and RSL reached the playoffs last year and, at this point, look like better teams. So do the Sounders. Two weeks ago, Colorado beat the Galaxy 3-2 at Home Depot Center, and plays host to L.A. this weekend. And we haven't even mentioned Houston, which finally got its first win, beating the Rapids 1-0 on Sunday.

Defender Gregg Berhalter should tighten up the Galaxy back line through his tough play and hectoring personality, but he's 35. Arena can pair him with either older (38) and only marginally faster Tony Sanneh or talented rookie Omar Gonzalez. Or he could move Franklin back to central defense and either find another right back or return Klein to that slot.

After trying Lewis at left back earlier in the season, Arena moved the U.S. veteran into midfield against his former team, and gave rookie A.J. DeLaGarza a test on that side of a three-man back line; San Jose took advantage and Arena pulled DeLaGarza off in the 56th minute to bring on Jordan and tweak the formation again.

Defender Todd Dunivant came into the match late for his first appearance of the season following a long injury layoff. When healthy, he'll give Arena an experienced left back and the option of using Lewis primarily at left mid.

There are myriad areas in which Arena is trying to foster cohesion and communication, elements that are especially critical in a league where momentum can be hard to generate because of parity among the teams and disruptions caused by international call-ups as well as injuries and suspensions.

There's time. But with call-ups and disruptions looming in June and Beckham's arrival in July, there's not much of it. Los Angeles struggled to catch up after falling too far behind last season, and despite changes on the coaching staff as well as the roster, '09 is looking much the same.

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