Galaxy has challenges, high expectations going into MLS season

The L.A. Galaxy opens the MLS season against the Chicago Fire at 7 p.m. PST Friday at StubHub Center

Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena can be funny, biting, sarcastic and sincere — sometimes all in the same sentence. And that can make it difficult to know when he's being serious.

Take his goals for the coming Major League Soccer season, for example.

"I would like to go 34-0 and win the MLS Cup," he said this week.

For any other team that would surely be a joke. But with the defending champion Galaxy, which has won 67 games and three MLS titles in the last four years, perfection may very well be the objective now.

In any case, it's something Arena's team will begin chasing Friday when the Galaxy hosts the Chicago Fire (7 p.m., UniMas) at StubHub Center in the opening game of the 20th MLS season. And for Arena, lofty expectations should be accepted, not avoided.

"I'd rather have that than be a loser," he said. "Bring it on. I kind of believe that's what I signed up for."

Goals aside, though, this will be a season of transition for both the Galaxy and MLS, both of which are looking to move beyond the bruising labor negotiations between the league and its players union that had threatened to delay the start of the season.

For the league, expansion has added two teams, with New York City and Orlando City making their MLS debuts against each other Sunday before a sold-out crowd of 62,000 in Florida's Citrus Bowl. Those additions, combined with the departure of Chivas USA, folded by the league last fall, leaves MLS with 20 teams. That's forced it to realign into two 10-team conferences by sending Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo back to the West.

The playoff field will expand as well this season, with the top six teams in each conference advancing to the postseason.

Also new are big-name roster additions such as Brazil's Kaka, a former world player of the year, who will team with U.S. national team winger Brek Shea in Orlando. New York City, meanwhile, has Spain's David Villa and American Mix Diskerud while U.S. striker Jozy Altidore and Italian forward Sebastian Giovinco are in Toronto.

And when the July transfer window opens, two other players with impressive resumes will follow, with Manchester City's Frank Lampard scheduled to come to New York and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard joining the Galaxy.

That will help make up for the departures of Toronto's Jermain Defoe, who returned to England, and the Red Bulls' Tim Cahill, who signed to play in the Chinese Super League. The league also lost former World Cup champion Thierry Henry of France and the Red Bulls and U.S. record holder Landon Donovan of the Galaxy, both of whom retired.

For the Galaxy, the loss of Donovan, the league's all-time leader in goals and assists, and the trade that sent Marcelo Sarvas to Colorado creates both challenges and opportunities in the team's midfield, especially for Kenney Walker, Jose Villarreal and teenager Bradford Jamieson IV.

"It's a blow," said Galaxy captain Robbie Keane, who was the league most valuable player last year after setting MLS career highs with 19 goals and 14 assists. "But it's important for these younger players now to stand up."

Up front, Keane will again be partnered with Gyasi Zardes, who scored 16 times last year to give the Galaxy the most prolific tandem of strikers in the league. They'll be backed by Edson Buddle, who returns to the team for which he scored 17 times in 2010.

Yet the Galaxy may be deepest on a back line that's anchored by World Cup starter Omar Gonzalez and includes six defenders who started at least 10 games last season. Panama's Jaime Penedo will be back in goal for the Galaxy, which allowed a league-low 37 scores in 2014.

"We have the capacity to be good. There should be no excuses," Arena said.

The Galaxy, after all, has higher expectations now. Yet even Arena didn't realize how much that differed from other clubs until this past off-season, when he began negotiating contracts with the agents of some of his players.

"They wanted to include bonuses for making the playoffs," said Arena, who is also the Galaxy's general manager. "And I said that doesn't work here.

"We'll gladly give bonuses for winning championships. But we don't give bonuses for making the playoffs."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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