When Bruce Arenatook over as the Galaxy's coach and general manager in August 2008, the teamwas a laughingstock. The defense, worst in MLS, had leaked 42 goals in 20games. The two stars, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, barely spoke to eachother. Los Angeles finished with just 33 points, tied for the fewest in MLS,and left Arena with a salary-cap mess for 2009—too many overpaidunderperformers. "A lot of teams positioned themselves to be good and thenhad to cut back," says Arena. "We actually positioned ourselves to bebad and had to cut back."
Now look. As theplayoffs start this week, the reborn Galaxy (12-6-12) is the top seed in theWestern Conference and a serious contender to win the 14th MLS Cup, in Seattleon Nov. 22. How did Arena do it? For starters he brought in 18 new players,rebuilding the defense through veteran pickups (Jamaican international DonovanRicketts in goal; U.S. World Cup vet Gregg Berhalter in central defense) andsmart drafting (rookies Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza). "Bruce made acommitment to build this team from the back forward," says Donovan."When Alexi [Lalas, the former G.M.] was here, it was always from the frontback. That's not a way to win consistently."
The Galaxy hasallowed exactly half as many goals as in '08, but there was more to theturnaround. Beckham's absence until July, the result of his loan to AC Milan,forced L.A. into what Arena calls "survival mode." It wasn't alwaysentertaining soccer—the Galaxy ground out nine ties in one 10-game stretch—butit set the stage for a second-half surge once the team was at full strength.Since Beckham's return L.A. has gone 6-3-3.
Yet Arena's mostimpressive feat may have been the way he handled the fallout from Donovan'scriticisms of Beckham that appeared in the book The Beckham Experiment. Insteadof hoping the two would work through their differences, Arena brought themtogether and let them air their feelings. "To their credit, they've dealtwith it in a professional way," says teammate Chris Klein. "The waythey've played takes care of a lot of other issues."
Donovan, whoreplaced Beckham as captain, has nothing but praise for the English midfielder.(Beckham did not speak to SI for this story.) "David's attitude, passionand professionalism have been top-notch this year," Donovan says. "Nowthe results are coming."
It's a longjourney from a year ago, and yet the Galaxy, which last won the MLS title in2005, realizes there's an even bigger step to take, starting on Sunday in thefirst game of the two-game first-round series against L.A. rival Chivas USA."The keys for us are maintaining our discipline on defense and in themidfield, and being more productive [in the attack]," says Arena. "Ifwe do that, we have the chance to beat anybody."
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Greg Lalas, LuisBueno and Noah Davis analyze the MLS playoffs at SI.com/bonus
Predicting the MLS postseason is always an iffyproposition, not the least because league rules promoting parity mean there'soften very little separating the highest seed (this year it's Columbus, with 49points) from the lowest (Real Salt Lake, 40). So let's go with the hot hand.With a solid defense and a strong supporting cast (including midfielder EddieLewis, below) behind stars Landon Donovan and David Beckham, the Galaxy shouldknock off Chivas USA in the first round, Houston in the Western Conferencefinals and Chicago in MLS Cup 2009, to earn the franchise its thirdchampionship.
¬†PEACEPROCESS It's been all smiles in L.A. since Arena brokered a truce betweenBeckham (left) and Donovan.
DAVID GODINEZ/CAL SPORT MEDIA