CARSON, Calif. – Ashley Cole won't arrive in Southern California until next week, but the LA Galaxy are already preparing for him to step in at left back.
In a 35-minute intrasquad scrimmage during LA's first open training session of preseason Wednesday, Robbie Rogers, the club's starting left back most of the past two seasons, was stationed on the right side of the first-choice group's backline.
Cole's signing, widely expected for weeks, was announced Wednesday morning, and to no one's surprise, he's going to be playing in his usual spot.
“He's an experienced left back, and we want to have a little more versatility with our outside backs,” head coach Bruce Arena said following the session at StubHub Center. “He's certainly a player over his career that's, obviously, been a very good defender, can get forward in the attack, and I think that's something we hope to utilize.”
And that would mean Rogers, who has previously expressed comfort on either side, would be on the right, right?
“Yeah,” Arena responded. “I would think that would be the situation.”
It's but one of many changes for the Galaxy heading into the new campaign following last year's disappointment. They stood atop the Supporters' Shield standings at the beginning of October, then skidded to fifth in the West and out of the playoffs at the earliest point in club history, conceding 10 goals in their final three MLS matches, including a Knockout Round loss at Seattle.
Shoring up that defense was an offseason priority, and it was made more cumbersome by the departures of star center back Omar Gonzalez to Pachuca and central midfielder Juninho to Club Tijuana.
The addition of longtime England international Cole, along with that of Belgian center back Jelle Van Damme – an acquisition announced Tuesday – are designed to fill holes, provide greater depth and spur greater defensive play for a team that has, over the past few seasons, surrendered too many decisive, end-of-game goals.
“I think [signing Cole] is a master stroke by the club,” former England captain Steven Gerrard said. “I know he looks after himself, he's very professional, he's hungry, he loves the game, and defense is one of the areas we went wrong last year. Ashley is a world-class defender, and he's still got a lot to offer, so it's a very good bit of business.”
Arena said there could be “perhaps another signing in the next week or so” but declined to comment on whether talks with Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong were nearing completion.
The acquisitions of goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, in a trade with FC Dallas, and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz and attacker Mike Magee, both of them free-agent signings, might be just as vital. Larentowicz, especially, because he can play in central midfield or on the backline, providing more options for Arena and his staff.
Getting everyone on the same page is important, and they must do so quickly. LA's opener is Feb. 24, a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg at home against Santos Laguna. Much of the team has been training at StubHub, at captain Robbie Keane's invitation, for several weeks.
“It's very important [that the group be in sync],” Keane said. “We have a quick turnaround, really, for the game with Santos, so I think it's important that we get our fitness in very, very quickly, get out match fitness in quick also. Hopefully, that will stand us in good stead against Santos.
“It's been a very good couple of weeks. It hasn't been easy at all, but everybody has got through fine so far.”
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The Galaxy will get their first real challenge of preseason Saturday night at StubHub with a friendly against Armenia's FC Shirak, a club that figures to draw a decent following from Los Angeles' sizable Armenian community. Fitness is the chief aim, but chemistry is important, too.
“Chemistry is valuable. Team spirit and bonding,” Gerrard said. “Good thing is we've got time. We've got a month before the first important game. We need to use these four weeks to get used to each other, welcome the new signings in, and, hopefully, they settle very quickly.”
On paper, this Galaxy team looks stronger than last year's version. Whether that plays out on the field is something else.
“We know we have the players in the team that can score goals – that's never been a problem,” said Keane, who has 82 goals in 125 MLS games, playoffs included, in four-plus seasons with LA. “Last year, the problem was defensively as a group we weren't good enough, and we have to correct that. [We] believe that [Cole's and Van Damme's additions] and, hopefully, maybe a few more players that come into the fold, that we'll be a lot stronger this year.”
Said Gerrard: “We'll have to wait and see. I think results will determine that.
“We've got four weeks to really gel and bond, and everyone knows where it went wrong last year. It's not as if we're all sitting here confused, asking each other why and where it went wrong. It's quite clear: Defensively, we weren't strong enough as a unit, so from from to back, we need to improve that, and, then, I'm sure we will be a better team.”