LOS ANGELES – The 2008 LA Galaxy were the most thrilling team in watch in Major League Soccer, but it’s hard to believe it was satisfying to be anywhere near the field when the final whistle blew.
That team absolutely hemorrhaged goals, to the tune of 62 in all over the course of 30 games. That was 14 more than any other club in the league in 2008, and the most since expansion sides Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake stumbled through their debut seasons in 2005 en route to a combined nine wins.
Fun to watch from the stands? Of course. The Galaxy scored five goals in a game three separate times and seemingly didn’t mind what opposing offenses did right back. They allowed at least four goals four times, including a 4-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids in the opener that set the tone for a disastrous season: It’s good for the eyes, not so great on the stomach.
If wins were tough to come by, consistency was nearly impossible. The club started the season with European legend Ruud Gullit before that experiment flopped, and then they came to their senses. Perhaps the best coach MLS had ever seen was out there without a coaching job, and the Galaxy desperately needed someone to change the culture in LA.
Two Supporters’ Shields later and with a second MLS Cup berth in three seasons looming on Sunday (9 pm ET, ESPN, Galavision, TSN2), there’s little doubt that the disaster of 2008 is a long-forgotten memory after the latest – and perhaps greatest – coaching triumph for Bruce Arena.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have played under some of the greatest coaches in the game, and Bruce is definitely up there,” Galaxy midfielder David Beckham said at Thursday's MLS Cup 2011 press conference. “He’s come into a franchise that needed stability, and he brought stability. But he brought experience as well. I’d heard of Bruce before I came to this league, and to hear that he was coming to the Galaxy, I was excited because I knew his history of success and he brought a lot of stability to the clubs he’s been in charge of. We’re lucky to have him as part of our team.”
Arena is 49-18-27 over his three full seasons with the Galaxy, the best record among MLS coaches over the past three seasons. He’s molded a defense that was so porous it was nearly laughable into a group that’s one of the best the league has ever seen at squeezing the life out of its opponents, highlighted by a league-high 16 shutouts this season.
“The one quality that stands out more than any other is his drive to succeed,” midfielder Landon Donovan said. “Sometimes it gets a little annoying because he wants it so badly, but he pushes us constantly. In the moments sometimes it’s difficult, but when you look at the big picture, there’s a reason he’s been so successful.”
Much of that is due to his willingness to overhaul that 2008 team without mercy. In fact, just one player who started Arena’s first game on the Galaxy sideline in 2008 will appear in the MLS Cup on Sunday – defender Sean Franklin. The only other players who mattered then and still matter now are the ones who sang his praises on Thursday: Donovan and Beckham.
Since his debut, he’s added all the pieces, young and old, big and small. He’s reunited with longtime friend and associate head coach Dave Sarachan, and introduced a wealth of new names into the fold at The Home Depot Center via the draft, a shrewd trade or a sharp international pickup: Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Juninho, Todd Dunivant, Josh Saunders.
And he’s done it with the same practical, patient and deliberate approach he’s always had. It might not be as fun to watch from the stands as it was before he got there, but it’s a whole lot more satisfying.
“We set our sights on the Supporters’ Shield, we accomplished that,” Arena said. “To get through qualification in the CONCACAF Champions League, we’ve done that. Our other goal was to win the MLS Cup. I think we’re headed in the right direction and we’re really eager to get on the field on Sunday and win the Cup.”