CARSON, Calif. – The opener came off the foot of a 23-year-old forward from nearby Hawthorne, California, who played his first game in an L.A. Galaxy jersey as a member of the club’s U-18 team back in 2008.
The game-winning goal was scored by a league MVP making $4.5 million per year who’s a legend in his native country and may be on his way to becoming one here.
Gyasi Zardes, the homegrown hero, and Robbie Keane, the veteran Irish marksman, were the men who tallied the goals that lifted the Galaxy to a 2-1 overtime triumph over the New England Revolution in Sunday’s MLS Cup final. But they represent something even more worrisome for the rest of the league. Armed with prodigious resources, a market and brand with global appeal and a wealth of talent on its Southern California doorstep, the Galaxy can beat you with the superstars now necessary to make the difference and the rising stars required to fill out a roster. Add an owner who’s arguably MLS’ most committed, a coach who’s its most successful, a stadium that draws the league’s third-largest crowds on average and now a record five MLS Cup trophies, and there’s next to no question that L.A. is American (and Canadian) soccer’s premier organization. Historically and currently, it stands alone.
The Galaxy claimed its third championship in four years on Sunday afternoon. The five overall MLS Cup titles eclipse the four won by D.C. United, which has been crowned only once in the 21st century. They match the five NASL championships earned by the original incarnation of the New York Cosmos, who qualified for six finals. But L.A. has appeared in a record nine (D.C. played in five, including four in the 1990s) and accumulated a record-tying four Supporters Shields, two U.S. Open Cup titles and one CONCACAF Champions Cup. Even its Development Academy teams have won two national titles.
“For us, it’s consistently getting trophies, and that’s why we’re the biggest team,” Keane said Sunday following his MVP performance. “From the very start with David Beckham, he made this team, I think, a huge, huge name globally, around the world, and by doing that you have to live up to the expectations. And people like Landon [Donovan] and myself helped that and [coach] Bruce [Arena] … It’s about winning and it’s about getting trophies. If you’re not winning, people forget about you fairly quickly.”
Trophies are the end product. The foundation established by the club, starting with founder Phil Anschutz, is practically self-perpetuating. From the days of Cobi Jones and Muaricio Cienfuegos, who carried the silver trophy onto the StubHub Center field before Sunday’s final, L.A. has been a pace-setter. Its stadium set a new bar for MLS facilities and its pursuit of Beckham changed the course of league history. No MLS club has sent more U.S. players to the World Cup. It was the first to field a USL Pro team. The rough stretch from 2006 to 2008 is an outlier that ended shortly after Arena came aboard. The Galaxy’s ability to stay ahead of the pack was noteworthy, Arena and Donovan said.
“When this league was founded, it was founded on the idea of parity. And the league does everything in its power to ensure parity,” the retiring Donovan said in response to a question from SI.com. “So when you have a team that wins three titles in four years, it’s pretty special. When you put that in context, it’s not like we’re Manchester United or Chelsea, who won three out of four years … We’re a team that has the same rules as everyone else has. To be able to do that, when you put it in that real context, I think it’s a lot more special than just winning three out of four.”
Said Arena, who’s coached three MLS clubs and won five MLS Cups, “That’s impressive stuff. I think you can say that especially in a league like ours that probably doesn’t want that to be the case and would be happy just moving the trophy from one franchise to the next year.”
He continued, “This is the best place I’ve ever been in my life. Fabulous owner, great management, and this year for me personally has been one of my most rewarding. It’s just a great group of guys. I’m so happy for them.”
The tone set by Arena, Anschutz, Donovan, Beckham and others has filtered down through the locker room to the depths of the player pool. This is a club with a culture, which is significant in a country that has been a player on the world stage for only a quarter century..
It’s a culture that allowed continued success this season as Donovan endured a professional tragedy, his controversial exclusion from the World Cup team, and defender A.J. DeLaGarza (who was outstanding on Sunday) endured a personal one, the death of his newborn son.
It’s a culture that values role players, reserves and mentorship. And it’s a culture that made defender Robbie Rogers feel welcome and comfortable enough to end his retirement and compete as the first openly gay male athlete in a major North American sport.
“I wanted to come back to L.A. and I know the organization is very professional and will handle everything and I can have confidence in everything, from the coaching staff to the PR guys to the guys on the team,” Rogers told SI.com inside L.A.’s champagne-soaked locker room. “It has really become the premier club and it shows, not only with what we’ve accomplished on the field but also everything off the field to make us comfortable. Plus the brand, it’s become here in the United States and around the world. A lot of teams from Europe, when they come here, they want to play against us.”
L.A. didn’t play it’s best on Saturday. It lacked sharpness in the attacking third, wasted too many chances on cheap giveaways or scuffed shots and suffered a late defensive breakdown that led to New England’s 79th-minute equalizer. The Revolution, 12-1-3 since mid-August, put up a real fight and had a couple opportunities to pull ahead. Teal Bunbury hit the crossbar in the 85th. Lee Nguyen had a strong case for a penalty kick half an hour earlier. But the Galaxy’s championship pedigree made the difference. This was a team with the composure and the class to make the play that mattered. Across MLS’ 19-year history, that’s been the case more often in L.A. than anywhere else.
As he heads into retirement, Donovan seemed confident the run would continue.
“This club is clearly more than one player,” he said. “They do things right here. There’s a lot of organizations in this league … that don’t really do things right. This club, this organization, this team, does things right, and it starts at the top. Phil Anschutz is as passionate and caring an owner as you’ll see. He’s behind the scenes, but he cares. [AEG president and CEO] Dan Beckerman is as good of a human being as I’ve been around, and that filters down. You guys all know [Galaxy president] Chris Klein. He was a roommate of mine for many years and I have so much respect for him and Bruce. When you have that spine in an organization, the organization is going to be successful regardless of who’s playing.”