Undermanned Galaxy get started on quest to defend title

Photo by German Alegria/LA Galaxy

CARSON, Calif. — The LA Galaxy officially began their quest to defend their MLS Cup title on Monday on a rain-soaked training field at the Home Depot Center. And with several key players from last year’s squad absent, the aim is clear for January and February.

“Go from Day 1 to Day 2 is the immediate focus,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena told reporters. “Fitness is a big part of it. We’re not really going to be too concerned with the preseason practice games in terms of winning and losing. We have certain holes in our roster to solidify, so that will all go into preseason strategy. Fitness is the whole preseason.”

While David Beckham's return has given Galaxy camp a big boost, some other major players from the 2011 title run are missing. Some will return soon – Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane are on loan to English Premier League clubs, and both are set to come back at the end of February.

At least one other won’t come back until late summer or early fall, as MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez nurses a torn ACL. And then there's Juninho, the talismanic midfielder who's returned to Brazil for good and won’t return at all.

Two players from last year’s squad were still in limbo before Monday, but Arena clarified the situation on at least one of them as Leonardo’s loan from São Paulo FC was extended and the central defender is expected to join the squad this week, according to the coach. Leonardo played in the Galaxy’s first seven games of 2011 before torn knee ligaments ended his season.

“He’s getting closer [to full fitness],” Arena said. “He should be able to play fully in April, we hope.”

Chris Birchall, meanwhile, was a no-show as the midfielder remains out of contract.

“There hasn’t been a decision made on him,” Arena said. “Originally he wanted go back to England, so we obviously agreed to that and didn’t renew his option. He was looking to explore opportunities in England. Perhaps he’ll want to come back.”

Meanwhile, among the new faces in camp are Marcelo Sarvas, who wore No. 8 – Birchall’s number last season – as well as Pat Noonan, Andrew Boyens and trialist goalkeeper Bill Guadette. They joined the club's various and sundry SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft picks.

Perhaps the most pressing need is in central defense. Given Gonzalez’s injury, the Galaxy will have to sort out the back line during the preseason, and there are some bodies back there to compete for playing time.

“We brought Andrew Boyens in [and] we have draft picks Tommy Meyer and Bryan Gaul and Leonardo,” Arena said. “I wouldn’t think that right now we have [sorted out] a first XI. We’re going to wait a little bit on that.”

Still, the chance to see the team bring in a foreign player to bolster the defense exists.

“It’s always a possibility – we’ve been looking at a number of players,” Arena said. "It’s Day 1. We’ll play it out over the next couple of weeks and see. There are still moves we can make. We have allocation money and we have more than we’ve had since I have been here.”

Luis Bueno covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com and can be reached by e-mail at buendoad@gmail.com