Galaxy looking to impress new boss
Major League Soccer's newest coach isn't wasting time before assessing the situation he needs to deal with. Ruud Gullit, who returned to Holland after the Nov. 9 news conference announcing his appointment as the Galaxy's new coach, rejoined the team this past week for L.A.'s two-game tour of Australia and New Zealand.
The Dutch coach was optimistic about his ability to cope with the specific restrictions of MLS.
"It's a great opportunity and I want to grab it," Gullit said. "I want to give the players tools to improve themselves."
The Galaxy players will get opportunities -- against Sydney FC on Nov. 27 and Wellington on Nov. 30 -- to show Gullit just how much needs to be improved. Unfortunately for the team, the offseason is mirroring much of the regular season. Injuries have hobbled the roster, with some players recently undergoing surgery and not making the trip. Of the 19 players traveling, perhaps only 15 are actually healthy.
"We're either exhausted or partially injured," said midfielder Landon Donovan. "My calf is better, but should I be playing? Probably not. But that's the way it goes and that's the situation."
The calf strain that Donovan suffered kept him out of the U.S. national team's latest contest versus South Africa, but another Galaxy member, David Beckham, played for England's national team in its past two games. Although he contributed two assists, England was unable to qualify for the European Championship. Beckham flew from England to meet his club in Australia.
"We're so depleted right now," acknowledged Galaxy goalkeeper Joe Cannon. "We don't even have a full group, not even close. It's like summer again -- except Beckham's healthy."
That difference could be crucial, because the Galaxy benefited little from Beckham's skill during the season when he was injured for lengthy periods. Gullit is counting on Beckham to provide a display of how he can contribute when fit.
"That's the reason he came here, to share his skills as a player," Gullit said. "He's also going to be a link to the other players."
The fortunes of other players may rest on how well they can mesh with their star.
"Everyone expected when I signed -- the crosses of Beckham with my finishing skill in the air," said forward Carlos Pavon. "We had that on one game in New York, where I scored twice from Beckham's service, but the rest of the season, he wasn't able to play much."
Forced to try to create his own scoring opportunities, Pavon generally disappointed. Now the arrival of Gullit gives all the Galaxy players a fresh start.
"I'm ecstatic," said midfielder Pete Vagenas. "It's absolutely the best thing. I think everybody failed last year."
The players are well aware, however, that it won't be easy to impress Gullit.
"He's going to demand respect and attention," said new assistant coach Cobi Jones. "There can't be any argument of 'Can you do it better?' because he has, in pretty much every circumstance."
Defender Chris Albright agreed.
"He's sharp," said Albright of Gullit. "He's a guy who I grew up watching play and admired. It's one of those things where we certainly can't question him as a player, because he was better than any of us have ever been. I think that helps him get respect from everyone, get everyone's attention, and at the same time, he seems like a great guy. Guys are looking forward to having him as a coach."
Gullit said that his own playing experience would influence the style he would like the Galaxy to develop. While he shied away from the term "sexy football" that he made famous, he stressed his background in the approach that made the Netherlands so successful.
"The Dutch system has made a major impact in football, especially for a small country," Gullit said. "I'll try to use that with this team."
Donovan had an idea of what Gullit might want the players to produce.
"Dutch football I'm pretty familiar with, just because of living in Germany and that rivalry," Donovan said. "For me, it's a creative, very pass-heavy system; hopefully, that helps us."
If the Galaxy are looking to focus on skillful soccer, it's not surprising that they decided to give Clint Mathis another try. The midfielder, formerly of the New York Red Bulls, signed with L.A. last week.
"From a technically gifted standpoint, there's probably not a better player in our country [than Mathis]," Donovan said. "When he wants to play, he's very good. So we'll see. I'm assuming that he's going to take this as a new chance and a fresh start."
Despite the fact that the Galaxy are playing exhibition matches, the players realize their future with the club may be at stake.
"It's an opportunity for all the players to showcase for the coach," Vagenas said.
Those who don't show well may not continue with the team.
"I hope to be here," Albright said. "I know the new coach will have a big say in that."
First impressions aren't easy to erase, so each player has added incentive to make a positive one.
"That's the reality," Donovan said. "[Gullit] is going to be watching, not just the games, but what's going on off the field as well. He's got an opportunity now to quickly assess the team and see where he wants to go."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.