CARSON, Calif. – David Beckham left the L.A. Galaxy two years ago, but the retired midfielder’s impact on the four-time MLS champion lingers. Playing alongside the English icon was about more than just those laser-guided long balls.
“We’re pretty battle tested in terms of distractions. David brought with him a lot of media, a lot of outside attention, a lot of distractions, and we dealt with it with him and now we’re dealing it with new things,” veteran Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant told SI.com at StubHub Center, where L.A. will face the New England Revolution in Sunday’s MLS Cup final.
“We have a lot of guys who make up the core of this team, who’ve been here since 2009, when this whole thing kind of turned around. That kind of leadership -- those kind of guys -- make all the difference.”
There’s little question that the top end of the Galaxy’s talented roster, which is managed and molded by the most successful coach in American soccer history in Bruce Arena, is a key driver of a six-year run that’s featured two MLS Cup championships, four Western Conference titles and two Supporters Shields. But the rest of the squad, “the glue of the team,” as Dunivant called it, has been critical as well. It’s a locker room accustomed to the noise that accompanies playing for American soccer’s most high-profile club. And that comfort was necessary during a season that included the sort of tragedy, triumph and headlines that might have derailed other teams.
“It’s part of playing with the L.A. Galaxy. It’s like a soap opera,” Robbie Keane said.
There was Landon Donovan’s shocking exclusion from the World Cup team, his subsequent decision to retire and all the questions, ceremonies and farewells that came along with it.
There was the sadness that surrounded the death of Luca DeLaGarza, the newborn son of defender A.J. DeLaGarza. Luca suffered from hypoplastic left heart syndrome and passed away in early September just a week after he was born.
There was Omar Gonzalez’s successful pursuit of a spot on Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup team, then his absence and subsequent recovery from an exhausting and emotional summer.
There was the resurgence of outside back Robbie Rogers, who attracted a ton of attention after opting to return to the field last year as the first openly gay male athlete in a major U.S. team sport. He just published a book and frequently promotes his appearances in the media, but his production hasn’t slipped. Rogers has been a rock at left back since assuming that role in early June.
There was the quick start to the season -- L.A. needed to be at its best early thanks to a mid-March CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against cross-border rival Club Tijuana. And there was the disappointment that followed the 4-2 setback in the second leg.
Even Arena wasn’t immune. He was fined a reported $20,000 for criticizing MLS in an August interview with The Washington Post that stemmed from the Galaxy’s failed pursuit of U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
“There have been distractions. We’ve dealt with them in a pretty good fashion,” Arena said Saturday. “[We have] good, experienced people. Been through it before. All teams have distractions during the year, ups and downs, and some deal with it better than others.”
Alan Gordon knows the Galaxy deal with it better than others. The striker played for L.A. during the tumultuous start to the Beckham era but departed in 2010 when he was traded to Chivas USA. Stints with Toronto FC and then the San Jose Earthquakes followed. This August, he was dealt back to the Galaxy. Gordon was aware that his playing time likely would drop. But all other indicators are rising. He has five goals in 18 matches for L.A., which compare to four in his most recent 39 league games with San Jose. Plus, he’s winning.
“Because I’m going to win a championship. Because I’m going to be part of a winning organization,” Gordon told SI.com when asked why he was happy with the move. “I want to fight and make a difference in that 20 minutes [on the field]. And if I can do that, I feel a part of it.”
He continued, “I think that when I was here with Beckham, the whole saga with Beckham, I don’t think anyone was prepared to handle it. I think Bruce does a great job with player management. He knows how to treat players, whether they’re stars or they’re the 30th man on the roster. He keeps it all together … The difference for us is that our stars want to win as a team. Our stars want to be part of a winning team and they don’t separate themselves.”
That sense of togetherness has ensured the team remained focus even if one its members (or more) was dealing with distraction or turmoil outside the locker room.
“Part of the thing people don’t see is how calm it is within the group. Day in and day out, it’s business as usual inside,” Dunivant said.
The 33-year-old, who was with L.A. in 2005-06 before returning in ’09, has battled abdominal and groin injuries this year and started only five regular season games. Dunivant fought his way back and should be available to play Sunday if called upon. But L.A. didn’t miss a beat without him as Dan Gargan emerged as a steady force on the right. He wasn't celebrated, but he was consistent.
The same goes for the central midfield pairing of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas, who do the dirty work that allows Keane, Donovan and Gyasi Zardes to work their magic. And then there’s Stefan Ishizaki, the Swedish newcomer who said he heard all about the Galaxy in Europe but came to L.A. to work and win, not because he was “craving attention.”
The right midfielder said, “In Sweden we have a saying – ‘You’ve got to have a high ceiling.’ You’ve got to be able to say stuff, come out and just air stuff out. Really be honest. I feel like that’s the kind of group we are. Everyone can be honest with each other and not take it in a bad way … I think all the stuff that’s happened this year has made us stronger as a group.”
That’s because Arena has built this team the right way. If the “soap opera” is an inevitable part of playing in L.A., then so are the trophies.
“You have enough guys on this team that know they have to do their job and they’re not going to get all the attention for it. You have to have guys like that. It’s not just about the guys who are big names and making headlines,” Dunivant said. “It’s guys who just have to do their job and not get the credit sometimes. But that’s why we’re here, year after year.”