After the Galaxy’s final preseason match, head coach Bruce Arena and several players fielded the same question multiple times.
“What will the starting lineup look like?”
After a midweek training session, the same question popped up on a few occasions. It seemed like a bit of a futile question since the club’s starting lineup figures to change. In fact, don’t expect the Galaxy to field the same 11 players for both Saturday’s match and next Thursday’s game, the latter against Chivas USA.
“You could be assured of the fact that the team that starts on Saturday, there will be some changes to the team that starts on Thursday against Chivas as well,” Arena said. “At this time of year, we’re still not set on a first 11, that’s guaranteed.”
A starting lineup is a necessary part of the sport, of course, but more important is depth. To expect the club to repeat the same starting lineup time and again, particularly in late March, April and May, is perhaps a setup for failure.
Injuries, suspensions and other unforeseen circumstances typically hammer away at players throughout the season. Rise and fall in form contributes to players’ playing time as well. And this year, the World Cup will likely keep Landon Donovan away for a portion of the season.
So why worry about a starting lineup? Arena isn't.
“We feel comfortable that we have a number of players that can play," he said. "I think that’s important, not only for these first two games over a short period of time but also for the other competitions we’re playing this year."
In all, 21 field players started games last season while Donovan Ricketts (26 starts) and Josh Saunders (four) took care of the goalkeeping duties. There was only one player who started all 30 games last year: defender Omar Gonzalez.
The Galaxy have done well to build a squad filled with players who can compete for starting spots and push each other in training in order to make sure the starting lineup is as competitive as possible, players said. It wasn’t always like that, they insisted.
“There is no secret that Bruce has been successful in this league for many, many years and he knows how to put a team together," said Landon Donovan. "And that doesn’t mean just bringing in a few star players. Two years ago, we had a starting 11 and then we didn’t have much competition after that and now when we play 11-v-11 within our team it’s extremely competitive.”
Quality depth leads to competition, competition means players are battling for spots which leads to a stronger starting lineup, in theory anyway. Filling in the lineup sheet might be something that’s not done until after the bulk of the training is complete. Earlier this week, for instance, there was no sign at training that Arena had decided on a lineup.
“One of the things Bruce has prided himself on is building a squad and a deep squad," said midfielder Eddie Lewis. "Certainly he has a lot of players he can choose from on the weekend. At this point, quite a few guys are available so I think he’ll have a lot of guys to choose from.”
Lewis played a key role with the Galaxy last season. The former U.S. national-teamer was a fixture in the club at times, but was also subject to the ebb and flow of a regular season. He started 23 of the club’s 30 games, came off the bench four times and didn't play in three games.
Even studying the preseason friendlies and trying to sort out in which possible direction Arena might be leaning for certain positions might seem like a futile effort. Donovan, for instance, was available for just one preseason game.
The competition within the squad and the games played have helped the Galaxy get to the start of the season confident and hungry and, fluid starting lineup or not, players are hopeful for some early success.
“We’ve had a pretty decent preseason but that certainly doesn’t translate to what the regular season is going to be like,” Lewis said. “We’re cautiously optimistic about this season but certainly we want everybody to be razor sharp and ready for the real thing.”