For both Danny Califf and Josh Gardner, 2005 will be a big year. The Los Angeles Galaxy players are both hoping to reverse their fortunes of last year and prove they are either back to form in Califf's case, or a young, productive player in Gardner's case.
The 2004 campaign was essentially a lost season for Califf. After scoring his first international goal in a friendly against Haiti in Miami on March 13, Califf played the first four games of the MLS season before suffering a severely sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
After sitting out for nearly two months, Califf returned to the Galaxy lineup, only to tear the meniscus in the same knee in his third game back. That time surgery was necessary, and Califf missed almost three months of action before working his way back into the Galaxy squad late in the year.
In all, Califf made just 13 appearances in 2004. This offseason, the U.S. international dedicated himself to fitness and avoiding the pitfalls he stumbled into a year ago.
"I feel much better. I feel much stronger," Califf said. "I've put on a little weight, which was a little bit of an issue last year. I think that's going to help overall in helping me keep healthy.
"Since last year was such a frustrating year for me, I really want to come out with a bang and make this my best year in MLS."
After spending much of the offseason working out, Califf got what he calls a head start on the new season with a week-long training stint with Norwegian top-flight club Valerenga IF. The club, which will get a shot to qualify for the UEFA Champions League in 2005, has been in preseason training for about three weeks. The training sessions Califf took part in consisted mostly of playing games and getting touches on the ball, but just getting back on the field was good enough for the 24-year-old defender.
"The offseason is long enough where you get tired of going to the gym and doing stuff on your own, and it's nice to get with the team and play and touch the ball," Califf said. "In that respect, it gave me a head start for the Galaxy preseason, and I'm pretty happy about the fitness level that I came in with."
What's more, Califf got to see how he might fit in with the Norwegian club were he to decide to move there once his current MLS contract is up. Norway has become the destination of choice for several U.S. players recently. Robbie Russell plays for reigning champion Rosenborg, while both midfielder Ramiro Corrales and goalkeeper Adin Brown have taken up residence in Norway. Also, defender Wade Barrett is on his way back to MLS from a stint in Europe that included a recent loan spell in Norway.
"I think it was a lot to just see what was out there, as well and see ... where I'm at in my development and whether I would, maybe, like to play there when my contract's done," Califf said. "I think I would be able to step in right away and contribute. I was very pleased with that."
Gardner, a midfielder who was selected by the Galaxy with a second round pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, spent 10 days with Bolton Wanderers, who are currently sitting mid-table in the English Premier League.
As a rookie, Gardner saw very little of the field, but he said he thinks he learned some valuable lessons in England. In particular, he noted that he gained a new appreciation for working off the ball. If he moves more off the ball, he said, he'll give himself a better chance to contribute to the club, and if he does that, he'll likely see more playing time.
Gardner also made some good connections in England, pointing out that the staff there said they'd like him to return some time. Whether he gets more minutes in 2005 remains to be seen, but according to Gardner, he is in a good position to succeed.
"My confidence level is really high right now," he said. "I definitely think that [playing time] is going to turn out for the better. I'm pretty excited about this year. I know it's going to be a big year for me."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.