CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy's bid for a third straight MLS Cup title might be determined not by what happens on the field over the next five weeks, but rather by a late-May trade that, by every logical criterion, left them significantly weaker.
Mike Magee's MVP-level campaign began with six goals in the Galaxy's first seven league games, and he netted 15 more after he was sent to his hometown Chicago Fire in a May 25 deal for the rights to Robbie Rogers, who promptly signed with LA but has made minimal impact for the reigning champs.
Yes, Magee asked to be traded to the Fire, to be closer to home as he and his girlfriend raise a young daughter, but the Galaxy didn't have to grant his wish. Did they err in doing so?
“Would we like Mike Magee here? Yes,” said Landon Donovan, who will lead the Galaxy against Real Salt Lake in their playoff opener Sunday evening at the StubHub Center (9 pm ET, ESPN). “I think any team wants the MVP of the league on their team, so, yeah, we would like Mike here. But the reality is Mike's not here, and we're all happy for Mike, and there's no guarantee those things [Magee achieved in Chicago] would have happened had Mike stayed here.
WATCH: Robbie Rogers' homecoming
“There's something to be said for being around your family and being close to home, and only those of us who are close to Mike know exactly why that decision was made. The public will never know what those reasons are.”
Magee had been the Galaxy's Mr. November during their title runs the past two years, scoring three goals en route to the 2011 triumph and three more plus an assist during last year's postseason run. He netted eight goals in 17 playoff games over four seasons with LA while scoring 19 in 105 regular-season games.
His departure stripped away a valuable dimension from the Galaxy attack.
“Mike's the type of guy that can pull a play off out of nothing,” Donovan said. “If you look around the league, there's not many guys like that. So on the days where Robbie [Keane] and I might not be producing, someone else can't step up. In the past, historically, Mike would step up with a big play and score a goal.”
Rogers, whose rights Chicago picked up in February from Columbus, hadn't played in five months when he joined the Galaxy for training in April, and he was still in preseason mode when he signed a month later. A series of injuries prevented him from finding his best form, and he's only started to hit stride as the playoffs arrive.
WATCH: Magee comes home to Chicago
Rookie Gyasi Zardes has benefited, getting significant time on the left side of midfield since the start of August. He's progressed rapidly, but is not yet consistently goal-dangerous.
Galaxy fans, on message boards and in comments to stories on MLSsoccer.com, have repeatedly lashed out at Rogers, for his lack of contribution and, primarily, because Magee is gone.
“I can't pay attention to that kind of stuff,” said Rogers, a Southern Californian who wanted to stay close to home. “They can say all they want about Mike Magee, but the truth is that Mike Magee asked for a trade and Bruce [Arena] said, 'Look, I wouldn't have traded Mike if he didn't ask for a trade.'
"That puts pressure on me -- I wish, you know, I guess, that wouldn't have happened, because it puts more pressure, but people can say that if they want. If they want to blame something, you know, I don't care.”
Donovan, who upset San Jose fans when he signed with his hometown Galaxy in 2005, via Bayer Leverkusen, after playing four seasons for the Earthquakes, says he understands the naysayers' frustration.
WATCH: The best of Robbie Rogers
“While most people see it as a business decision, those of us who are close to both players understand the personal side to it, and in my opinion, there's much more to life than a soccer game,” Donovan said. “I'm confident over the long run it will be good for both players and both teams.”
Arena has nothing to say on the subject, but associate head coach Dave Sarachan says it's too early to pass judgment.
“Robbie Rogers has had a difficult year with injuries and sort of a start-stall-start, but I wouldn't sleep on Robbie Rogers yet,” Sarachan said. “I think he's put in a lot of work and time, he's got enough experience now [with this group], and we feel we've still got five weeks to go in the season.”
Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com.