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Feb 18, 2008

New-look Galaxy prepare for the season

CARSON, Calif. -- Ruud Gullit did not come to Major League Soccer expecting his coaching job to be an easy one. The Dutch coach is using every weapon in his arsenal of international experience to shape up the Los Angeles Galaxy as the team prepares for both the inaugural Pan-Pacific Championship and the start of the MLS season.

"We're doing drills I've never seen before," said defender Mike Randolph.

That's not all that's changed in the squad. Gullit has put the team through a rigorous training regime.

"We're training morning and afternoon," said star player and team captain David Beckham. "He's working us hard, but we need it."

Looking to develop every advantage possible, Gullit has overhauled the diet of the Galaxy players, monitoring their intake carefully.

"The game has changed so much in the last 10, 15 years," Beckham said. "It's all about eating right, and drinking right and looking after yourself these days. If you don't, you don't perform at a high level."

It's not hard for Gullit to get what he demands -- players have only to look at his accomplishments to realize he has forged a successful path before.

"He's played at the highest level," said defender Abel Xavier. "Everybody here respects that."

From all indications, the current preparations are a far cry from the Galaxy's more relaxed postseason tour of Australia and New Zealand only a few months ago. Back then, Gullit mostly assessed players in games, but now he is determined to mold the Galaxy into winners. The chance to be victorious starts with the Pan-Pacific Championship, which will be contested in Hawaii versus Sydney FC from Australia, Gamba Osaka from Japan, and the reigning MLS champions, the Houston Dynamo.

"That will pretty much set the stage for our season," said goalkeeper Steve Cronin. Since he has never started regularly for an MLS team, the 24-year-old faces a considerable challenge.

"It's a good thing for us that we get thrown in those kinds of games right off the bat, while other teams are playing closed-door games," Cronin said. "I'm excited. It's a lot of pressure, but at the same time, it's an opportunity that I've wanted for a long time. Hopefully, I take advantage of it."

Pan-Pacific Championship
Feb. 20
L.A. Galaxy vs. Gamba Osaka
Honolulu, Hawaii
11 p.m. ET (ESPN Classic, ESPN360)

Houston Dynamo vs. Sydney FC
Honolulu, Hawaii
1:30 a.m. ET (ESPN Classic, ESPN360)

Feb. 23
Third-place match
Honolulu, Hawaii
11 p.m. ET (ESPN360)

Final
Honolulu, Hawaii
1:30 a.m. ET (ESPN Classic, ESPN360)

It hasn't been easy for Gullit to adjust to the roster restrictions in MLS, where a salary cap severely limits the options coaches have to bring in players.

"Yes, it's frustrating, but it's the same for every other MLS team," Gullit said. "That's just the way it is over here."

Yet Gullit was able to use his Chelsea contacts to bring in defender Celestine Babayaro, a Nigerian player who had played for Gullit during his Premiership coaching days.

"Celestine's not just a good person, but a great player," Beckham said. "He's a player who's had experience in leagues around the world. He's a great addition to the team."

Despite being a coaching novice in the U.S. league, Gullit has been unafraid to pull the trigger on a number of trades. In just the past month the team dealt away Quavas Kirk and Chris Albright, bringing in Greg Vanney and forward Carlos Ruiz.

The number of new faces at training has left some Galaxy veterans a bit discombobulated.

"I probably introduced myself to the same guys four times, just because I couldn't remember who they were," forward Landon Donovan said.

The high amount of player movement goes against the traditional MLS formula of building a winner by working with the same group of players.

"The evidence is in the results of the past four or five years, with teams like Houston and New England [both were MLS Cup finalists two years running], who I would guess have had the least amount of turnover in the league and have done very well," said midfielder Chris Klein, though he expressed confidence in the approach of his new coach.

"Ruud has a plan and he's done a very good job of implementing that plan into what we have," Klein said.

With poor results two years in a row, most players expected changes to be made.

"Turnover happens because you don't get the job done," said midfielder Pete Vagenas. "If you want to keep your group together, you've got to win, and that's something that we unfortunately didn't do. Not making the playoffs, there's really no excuse for it."

Klein noted that even with many personnel changes, the Galaxy don't lack for leadership in the ranks. "I don't think you can get better than guys like David [Beckham] and Landon [Donovan] or myself and Abel [Xavier]. These guys have played at the highest level."

Klein did not mention Guatemalan international Carlos Ruiz, most likely because Ruiz is still recovering from an injury and is unlikely to make the preseason tour.

With a big-name coach and the league's highest-profile player, the Galaxy organization is well aware that there will be no excuses for failure this year. While most MLS players go into preseason relaxed and ready to bond as a squad, the Galaxy enter this period with an agenda already set by their coach to start meeting high expectations right away.

"We have to improve in all areas, because at the end of the day, we can't have things like last season," Beckham said. "All the way through the team we have to improve, from the back to the front. That's what we have to do. It's not just certain players. It's a team."

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 soccercanales@yahoo.com.