For Unbeaten Galaxy, It Isn't the Stars, It's the Chemistry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps it is winger Cobi Jones suddenly kicking it into a higher gear, his dreadlocks becoming almost a blur as he sprints past a defender.

Perhaps it is striker Eduardo Hurtado, the goal-hunger in his eyes, lowering his shoulders and powering his way into the penalty area.

Perhaps it is playmaker Mauricio Cienfuegos cleanly trapping the ball in midfield, spinning past an opponent and sending a perfect pass to a teammate.

Perhaps it is goalkeeper Jorge Campos flinging his body across the goal to tip a fierce shot around the post, then grinning like a schoolboy.

Or perhaps it is all of the above and then some.

Whatever the reason, Jones, Hurtado, Cienfuegos, Campos and the rest of the Los Angeles Galaxy have become the hottest ticket in soccer.

A 10-0 start will do that.

A few other figures help put things in perspective.

In New York on Sunday, the Mets drew 40,707 to Shea Stadium for a game against the Florida Marlins. The day before, 40,797 turned up at Belmont Park to see Editor's Note win the third leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.

And at Giants Stadium on Sunday afternoon, 53,250 fans showed up to see the Galaxy play the hapless New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

It's becoming a common tale around Major League Soccer. Los Angeles, averaging a league-high 34,107 at the Rose Bowl, is also averaging an MLS-best 31,993 away from home. The Galaxy's game Sunday at the Rose Bowl against Tampa Bay, a doubleheader with the U.S.-Mexico game, is expected to be a sellout.

But if it is easy to see why the fans are clambering aboard the Galaxy bandwagon, it is harder to understand exactly why the team is enjoying such success.

The salary cap and equal allocation of "name" players were supposed to produce parity within the 10-club league. Why would one team be so much better?

There's a one-word answer: chemistry.

Coach Lothar Osiander and assistant Octavio Zambrano knew what they were looking for in the regular, collegiate and supplemental drafts and were fortunate or smart enough to find it. The result shows on the field.

The Galaxy plays like a team that is enjoying itself. The players, despite their seven-nation background, have gotten along from the start. There has never been a "we and they" attitude separating the stars and the supporting cast. It has been a team from the beginning.

That fact shows itself on the field more clearly with each game. The vital understanding between players that other MLS clubs still are struggling to find is clear. The ball is passed around smoothly. The Galaxy maintains possession for long periods, stringing together passes as it tries to find and exploit the opponent's weaknesses.

It also shows itself off the field. The locker room is a convivial place. So what if the television cameras invariably home in on Mexico's Campos or El Salvador's Cienfuegos? They deserve it. Each is said to add 5,000 fans to every crowd.

There are no egos to get in the way of success. Players such as defender Manny Motajo and midfielder Mark Semioli seldom get the credit they deserve, but no one is complaining. The players party together after each home game and appear to enjoy each other's company.

A 10-0 start is not the result of two or three stars carrying the rest. The statistics show just how much of a team effort it has been.

Of the 22 players on the Galaxy roster, 20 have played. Only five--Campos, Cienfuegos, Motajo, Semioli and Dan Calichman--have played every minute. The Galaxy has scored 24 goals. Hurtado leads with seven, but, astonishingly, 10 other players have also scored. Each outing seems to produce a different game-winner.

Los Angeles leads the league in offense, with a 2.4 goals-per-game average, and defense, with a 1.0 goals-against mark.

When the Galaxy was 5-0, after beating the Clash in San Jose, Robin Fraser and fellow defender Calichman were asked if they had foreseen such a start.

"No, I didn't think so," Fraser said. "This is almost becoming repetitious to say after games, but I think Lothar has done such a great job of a) picking players and b) putting together a team style that our chemistry is so good that a lot of times even when we don't play well our personalities are such that we work so hard for each other that we gut out wins."

Carlos Queiroz, called in from Portugal to help salvage the season for the 4-7 MetroStars, sees beauty in the Los Angeles game.

"Hurtado and Cienfuegos, they are beautiful players and they are intelligent players," the former Portuguese national team coach said after seeing his team totally outplayed in a 4-0 loss on Sunday. "L.A. is a beautiful team, especially when you give them space to counterattack. That is the strong point of L.A."

The Dallas Burn (7-5) is second to the Galaxy in the Western Conference, and the Tampa Bay Mutiny, Sunday afternoon's opponent at the Rose Bowl, leads the Eastern Conference at 8-3. The unbeaten mark will fall sooner or later.

Asked to account for the Galaxy's fast start, Osiander gave the usual answers, then added a bit more.

"It's a combination of many things, and ideally you complement one another on the field," he said. "So you have some guys who have super speed, you have some guys who have an outstanding touch, you have some guys who are tactically well-versed, and at the back we try to stay solid. And Campos is an outstanding individual who has his own way of playing the game. That's why he makes the big bucks."

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