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Zambrano Faces a Galaxy of Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On his first day as interim coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Octavio Zambrano faced the predictable slew of questions Tuesday. But one stood out.

Can Zambrano turn fellow Ecuadorean Eduardo Hurtado’s slumping game around or is Hurtado destined soon to be shipped off to parts unknown?

The eventual answer will play a large role in determining whether the 3-9 Galaxy can salvage its second Major League Soccer season. Last year, the league’s third-leading scorer led the team to the MLS championship final with 21 goals in 26 regular-season games and three more in the playoffs.

This year, Hurtado has scored only once. “El Tanque” has become “El Frustrado,” and he has not been hesitant in voicing his frustrations, at one point blaming former coach Lothar Osiander for his troubles.

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But now, with a countryman as coach, perhaps things will improve.

“I hope so,” Zambrano, 39, said Monday. “I’ve had a great relationship with Eduardo and he has reacted positively when I’ve had the chance to talk to him.

“I think he’s the type of guy where, psychologically, a lot of things have to be right for him to perform. So maybe this is one change that will do him good. Not to say that Lothar had anything to do with his lack of scoring. I really don’t buy that.

“It’s just one of those things. When a player gets into a situation when he can’t score, he starts to look for answers. But I think the answers lie within Eduardo.

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“He is going through a drought as a goal scorer, not only with our team but also with the [Ecuadorean] national team. But just as he can miss goals, he can score them, and I hope that if and when he comes back, he comes with that mind-set.”

Note that phrase, “if and when he comes back.” There is an increasing belief that Hurtado may not be coming back, a possibility not denied Tuesday by Danny Villanueva, the Galaxy’s president and general manager.

“When [Hurtado] decides that he is ready to go and generates some confidence, he’s virtually unstoppable in this league,” Villanueva said.

“He has yet to demonstrate that this year. Perhaps the change [in coaches] that we have made will give him another opportunity to do that. But I’m not prepared to say that he will or will not have that opportunity.”

In other words, Hurtado might already have played his last game for the Galaxy.

One scenario being discussed is a three-way trade through which:

* A Mexico-based--but not necessarily Mexican--striker would move to the San Jose Clash to replace former Mexico national team forward Daniel Guzman, who walked out on the team last week.

* Hurtado would be traded to a Mexican club.

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* U.S. national team striker and all-time leading scorer Eric Wynalda would be sent from San Jose to Los Angeles, rejoining former teammate Cobi Jones.

League officials are in Mexico, but Villanueva did not want to speculate on the outcome of their visit, saying only that “discussions are ongoing.”

A straight swap between the Clash and the Galaxy, Wynalda for Hurtado, had been rumored last week, but although Wynalda said he would like to come to Los Angeles, Hurtado said he is not willing to play for any other MLS team.

“Naturally, we need to clear the appropriate space for Eric to come here,” Villanueva said. “It comes back to an issue of being a multiplayer deal, ultimately.

“Eduardo was not silent about where he wanted to play in this country, and essentially that’s Los Angeles. If he’s moved out of L.A., he’s not sure he wants to keep playing [in MLS], but I don’t know how much conviction there was in those words.”

Hurtado is in Bolivia with Ecuador’s national team for the 12-nation, three-week Copa America tournament that begins today and was not available for comment.

“He’s going to be in the Copa America for a month and I need to evaluate what this team needs right now,” Zambrano said. “I can’t tell you we can wait that long for him or whether we’re going to do something else. It’s too premature to say.”

Zambrano will make his MLS coaching debut Sunday, when the Galaxy plays the Tampa Bay Mutiny at 4:30 p.m. at the Rose Bowl.

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And that, not Hurtado, is what he was concentrating on Tuesday.

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Interim Coach at a Glance

* Name: Octavio Zambrano.

* Age: 39

* Nationality: Ecuadorean

* Playing Experience: Ecuador’s junior national team at age 17; professional with Union Deportivo Valdez in Ecuador first division at 18; came to Chapman University on soccer scholarship; Los Angeles Lazers (MISL); player/coach in Greater Los Angeles Soccer League.

* Coaching Experience: California Emperors, Los Angeles Salsa, Los Angeles Cobras, Los Angeles Galaxy.


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