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Jul 17, 2009

Galaxy continue to make huge strides under Arena

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was only one game, and it came against the worst team -- maybe ever -- in Major League Soccer. Nonetheless, Los Angeles' 3-1 demolition of the New York Red Bulls on Thursday begs the question:

Are the L.A. Galaxy for real?

As easy as it is to focus on frenemies Landon Donovan and David Beckham, the reason the 2009-edition Galaxy probably have as good a shot at hoisting the MLS Cup as anyone in the parity-heavy league is that the quality supporting cast that was sorely missing in the first two years of Beckham's American adventure is finally in place.

Last season, Donovan and Beckham conspired to make the Galaxy MLS' highest-scoring team. But they managed to not come close to the playoffs by also allowing the most goals, a whopping 2.07 per game.

But if you haven't been paying attention this season, this is essentially a brand-new team; less than a year after being hired as the club's coach and general manager, Bruce Arena has almost totally overhauled his roster.

Gone are the lineup cards filled with names unknown even to MLS die-hards. This group is comprised of battle-tested international veterans, proven pros and a pair of blue-chip rookies who have helped turn the new-look Galaxy into one of the league's stingiest outfits. Heading into the Red Bulls match, L.A.'s goals-against average was 1.06, fourth overall in MLS.

"He brought in people with experience and he emphasizes the defensive aspect of the game," said goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, one of seven Arena recruits boasting at least one international cap.

European-league vets Gregg Berhalter and holding midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi anchor the improved back line, while first-year starters Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza -- teammates last year at NCAA champ Maryland and a stroke of drafting genius by Arena -- have been a revelation.

"Our young players are receptive to teaching and it's fun to see these kids develop," Arena said.

But they are also performing well as they learn; the Galaxy have not conceded a goal from the run of play during their current four-game winning streak.

Said Ricketts: "We know that if we keep it tight we always have a chance to win because offensively I think we're pretty amazing."

Especially with Donovan in the form of his career. The Galaxy's captain was everywhere against New York, and Beckham made sure to seek him out after Donovan's first-half golazo. Whether it was for show or genuine, at least respect was evident.

Which is a very good sign for the Galaxy. Everyone knows Beckham would rather have stayed with AC Milan until the end of the 2009-10 season. But if he has to be here, you better believe he wants to win.

Believe too that Beckham didn't like that his carefully cultivated, close-to-impeccable public (not to mention professional) image has taken a hit because of Donovan's public criticism.

But Beckham's oft-cited ability to win over critics and reinvent himself means he'll likely approach this latest controversy the way he has overcome others: by laying low, working hard, and letting his play do the talking. It is by far his best option, too, which is another good sign.

When you combine Beckham's unquestioned quality with the disciplined, talented team the Galaxy have become, and also factor in Arena's attention to detail and man-management skills, it seems all but certain that the Galaxy will end their three-year playoff drought this fall.

Beckham recognizes the strides that the Galaxy have made in terms of personnel.

"We're playing with players that have got a lot of confidence," Beckham said. "They're not scared to just, you know, do stuff on their own. You know, they don't feel as if they have to give the ball to certain players in attacking positions because they can do it themselves."

And make no mistake: That alone would be a measure of redemption not only for Beckham, but also for Donovan, Arena and AEG honcho Tim Leiweke -- each of them requires redemption for one reason or another.

After that?

"Once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen," Ricketts said.

Including the Galaxy on a podium with a shiny silver trophy.

Now wouldn't that be the perfect Hollywood ending to the Beckham experiment?

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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