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Mar 24, 2008

Galaxy's big three need to stay healthy

Editor's note: This is the 10th of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 9-14-7 (Fifth in the Western Conference, missed the playoffs)

Key additions: F Carlos Ruiz, D Greg Vanney, F Ely Allen, D Sean Franklin, D Julian Valentin, M Alvaro Pires

Key losses: D Chris Albright, GK Joe Cannon, M Kyle Martino, M Cobi Jones, M Kelly Gray, F Carlos Pavon, F Gavin Glinton,

Key questions facing the team

1. Can the Galaxy's stars stay healthy?

Last season it was David Beckham and then-Galaxy-player Chris Albright, among other players on the squad, who were bitten with the injury bug. In MLS, the salary cap dictates that clubs who splash out money on big-time players must compensate with much lower paychecks for the other squad members. Generally, that means inexperienced players, so a squad is really left leaderless when even one or two of their top players is sidelined.

Beckham has been healthy and fit during the team's preseason, but at his age, injuries are commonplace. Forward Landon Donovan did not even travel on the team's preparation tour because of a knee injury. Carlos Ruiz, meanwhile, has often missed time in previous seasons because of recurrent muscle strains. Those are the three most expensive players on the squad. If they are on the bench instead of on the field, those who are left probably can't handle the load of defeating fellow MLS teams with fewer stars, but more consistent quality throughout the lineup.

2. Is Steve Cronin ready?

Nothing gives opposing forwards more confidence than knowing they'll be facing a rookie goalkeeper. It's not just that inexperienced keeps need time to adjust to a game's pacing. It's also that in a relatively small league like MLS, players learn each other's tendencies fairly quickly. During that learning curve, however, league forwards will be eager to use all their favorite tricks and shots on Cronin. Watching a player on video is never the same as facing that person in an actual game. Attacking opponents know this well.

A high-profile team such as the Galaxy is also a difficult place to break in a rookie goalkeeper, because the position is so pressure-packed by definition. If he blunders, highlight videos around the world could easily cast Cronin as the oaf who costs Beckham games.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"I don't see it turning around. I don't see it getting any better. The learning curve for Beckham is over. He knows what he's up against now. He's got his feet wet with Major League Soccer. He understands the travel and I think the initial amount of attention that he was getting -- I think he's used to that now. The biggest problem is Ruud Gullit has no idea what he's up against. We've seen this before and this is not a knock on Ruud Gullit, but there are going to be so many things that they are going to have to explain to him in this process. They're going to have to work managing his frustrations with the situation. There are two facts of life in MLS -- the way things should be and the way they actually are. I'm really looking forward to seeing how Ruud Gullit, who was one of my idols when I was a kid, deals with the logistics of MLS. The Carlos Ruiz trade -- I don't think it's going to help. Carlos is still going to pull a hamstring in the middle of the summer and take a break, because he does it every year."

3. Can the Fish swim in his favorite sea again?

It's no secret that Carlos Ruiz was unhappy about leaving the Galaxy back in 2005. He was comfortable in Los Angeles. Perhaps that was part of the problem, though, as his goal output was falling every year. His stint in FC Dallas might have actually revived him, partly because he was given more leadership responsibilities there.

Now Ruiz claims to have a new appreciation for the opportunity to play with the Galaxy. Inevitably, there is also some humility involved for both the team and player. Ruiz is no longer the cocky young forward who led the Galaxy to their first championship. The Galaxy are no longer the only MLS team never to miss the playoffs. Ruiz isn't even the big fish on the team -- Beckham clearly has that job. "Little Fish", however, has a chance to prove he still has what it takes to return L.A. to glory.

4. Can Ruud Gullit adjust to MLS?

He won't ever score a goal for the squad, but much of the Galaxy's success is centered around their new coach, Ruud Gullit. MLS has not been a kind league to foreign coaches. They arrive with glistening credentials and almost always leave quite quickly with losing records.

Gullit is an affable sort, but that easygoing charm masks a disciplined mind full of creative little details to improve a team. He has imposed a new schedule, dietary regime and incorporated European training techniques and drills that are novel to his American players. It may pay off marvelously, or he may find himself with a rebellion on his hands because most U.S. teams are not so tightly regimented.

Gullit himself may chafe at the enormous number of restrictions he must work under. It could very easily have been the salary cap numbers that kept him from signing a former Chelsea player, Celestine Babayaro, to the Galaxy recently. Gullit has a tremendous amount of contacts in the soccer world, yet if he cannot offer a competitive rate to players he wants to bring in, his connections are useless.

Biggest X factor: Abel Xavier

The Portuguese star has the savvy and positioning skills, but his speed has fallen off considerably. His accurate service to the midfield and even the forwards is an asset, but with a rookie goalkeeper between the posts, the defensive line is crucial. If Xavier can marshal the defense to stand tough in front of Cronin, the Galaxy's fortunes look better.

Breakout player to watch: Ely Allen

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose at Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Allen isn't going to blow away any defenders with his speed, and he doesn't have a powerful strike like Ruiz, but he has shown good judgment during the squad's preseason tour. Allen gets to open spaces and incoming crosses; he makes passes at the right time, and he isn't afraid to try to finish. Gullit could find the rookie a handy option throughout the season.

Outlook

Beckham's right leg is a potent weapon. Simply put, the Galaxy captain can still do what he does best -- provide excellent crosses and dead-ball service. That gives the team a distinct advantage in every game they play, especially since now they have an experienced MLS forward like Ruiz to receive the ball.

The trifecta of Donovan, Ruiz and Beckham could be one of the most exciting combinations in the league, but it's a bit hard to tell, as they have yet to be on the field together in even an exhibition game.

The big three can't do it alone, however. Last season, the Galaxy seemed to thrive only when the harsh media spotlight wasn't on them. That defeats the whole purpose of bringing in an attention-getting player like Beckham.

Gullit may actually be a crucial element here. His profile is high enough to deflect some attention from Beckham, and his leadership in coping with the media pressure might set the perfect example for all the Galaxy players who were overwhelmed by the situation last year. It could also be that as the Beckham novelty wears off, everyone will find it easier to adjust. That comfort level could propel the team back to the playoffs.

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.