A couple of weeks ago, during a preseason tour of Central America, the Los Angeles Galaxy was playing Suchitetequez in the Guatemalan town of Mazatenango when an earthquake struck.
Fearing the collapse of all or part of the stands, players and coaches from both teams ran to the center of the field to avoid falling debris. Fortunately, the temblor was only a moderate one and the game resumed after a 10-minute break.
No such drama is likely to attend the opening of the Galaxy's third Major League Soccer season at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. But the fallout from the off-season could be just as unsettling.
In the low-stakes poker game that is MLS, the Galaxy will stick with the hand it has been dealt. What you saw last season is what you will see this season.
Minus, of course, a couple of cards--the joker, Jorge Campos, and the jack (of all trades), Chris Armas. Both were lost, via trade, to the Chicago Fire after the expansion draft.
So when the Galaxy runs onto the field at 7 p.m. to play the San Jose Clash, it will have a very familiar look. The look in the stands, however, might be decidedly different.
The Galaxy drew a turn-away crowd of 69,255 for its inaugural game in 1996, and 53,147 showed up for the first game of 1997. But how will Los Angeles-area fans respond to a team that so far has not signed any new players of note but has lost one of its marquee performers, Campos?
Danny Villanueva, the team's president and general manager, is realistic enough to know that anything above the Galaxy's 1997 average of 20,626 per game would be a plus. This year, the end of the season is more important than the beginning.
That's because the Rose Bowl will be the site of MLS Cup '98, the league's championship game, on Oct. 25. From the Galaxy's standpoint, it is far more important to fill the stadium that afternoon than to do so on Saturday evening.
Similarly, Coach Octavio Zambrano's assignment is not necessarily to get the team off to a fast start but rather to assure that it lasts the distance. Last season, the Galaxy was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Dallas Burn. This season, it is supposed to be playing for the title on Oct. 25.
And even if it isn't, the Galaxy season will not end there.
In an effort to make MLS a more integral part of the world soccer community, a new 16-team tournament is being launched this fall that will pit top clubs from North America with their counterparts in South America.
It is called the Copa Merconorte and features teams from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Venezuela. Defending MLS champion Washington D.C. United and the Galaxy are representing the U.S.
The Galaxy's first-round Copa Merconorte games, to be played home and away in September, October and November, will be against Cruz Azul of Mexico, The Strongest of Bolivia and Caracas of Venezuela.
Because it is taking part in the Copa Merconorte, the Galaxy will not enter the U.S. Open Cup this season, Villanueva said.
For the moment, however, the focus is on the MLS season.
The main change will be in the nets. The flamboyant, experienced Campos is gone. Kevin Hartman starts the season as the No. 1 goalkeeper, and another former UCLA standout, Matt Reis, will be the backup.
Life without Campos is going to make a difference for the Galaxy starting defensive line of Paul Caligiuri, Dan Calichman, Robin Fraser and Greg Vanney.
"I think it's kind of a trade-off, to be quite honest," Fraser said of going from Campos to Hartman. "In some respects, Campos is capable of unbelievably good things. And that's really comforting, knowing he can pull off unbelievable saves from time to time.
"But by the same token, Kevin Hartman is a great, great shot-stopper. Maybe we give up a little of the experience that we had with Campos, but he [Hartman] is young and he's going to learn.
"He's definitely very, very promising. He's coming along and he will be a great keeper.
"Another bonus is that we get a little more consistency as far as at least knowing what he [Hartman] is going to do."
In other words, don't look for Hartman to come racing out of the nets and suddenly appear on the halfway line with the ball at his feet. Or to change uniforms at halftime and end the game playing as a forward.
Brilliance and unpredictability (and a maximum salary) have made way for, well, consistency.
The Galaxy defense returns intact and the midfield is more or less unchanged too. Mauricio Cienfuegos will still be the playmaker, backed by Martin Machon, Cobi Jones and newcomer Clint Mathis.
Mathis, from the University of South Carolina, was the Galaxy's first-round pick in the collegiate draft. He at first opted to try his luck with Feyenoord in the Dutch first division, then changed his mind and signed with Los Angeles.
He is expected to take the place of Armas but will find it difficult to do so right away.
"I think missing Chris Armas is going to hurt tremendously," Fraser said. "I think he's pretty much irreplaceable. I think that highly of him.
"While we have other people who can come in and play the position, I think there's something that Chris added that any team would want to have."
Up front, Welton, last season's top goal scorer, is back, as is Eduardo Hurtado.
Otherwise, it's the same old Galaxy--at least until Villanueva delivers the promised player from Mexico and perhaps even German World Cup winner Juergen Klinsmann in July or August.
The Galaxy has salary cap room and one foreign roster spot to play with but is being cautious in making its move.
The end of the season is more important than the beginning.
"I think there are a couple of ways to look at it," Fraser said. "One is if we've had this group for what would be the third year now, we should theoretically be the most cohesive team in the league.
"The other way to look at it is that teams are obviously strengthening themselves and we are remaining kind of status quo. But I think when all of our players come to play, we can be good. Hopefully, that's the way it'll be 32 times this year."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
No. Name Pos. Age Hometown 8 Jose Botello F 22 Los Angeles 6 Dan Calichman D 30 Huntington Station, N.Y. 20 Paul Caligiuri D 34 Walnut 10 Mauricio Cienfuegos M 30 San Salvador, El Salvador 16 Joe Franchino D 21 Alta Loma 4 Robin Fraser D 31 Denver 22 Kevin Hartman G 23 Palos Verdes 17 Ezra Hendrickson D 26 Kokomo, Ind. 23 Daniel Hernandez M 21 Tyler, Texas 9 Eduardo Hurtado F 29 Esmeraldas, Ecuador 12 Guillermo Jara F 24 Sacramento 15 Steve Jolley M 22 Virginia Beach, Va. 13 Cobi Jones M 27 Westlake Village 11 Harut Karapetyan F 25 Van Nuys 7 Gerardo Laterza M 23 Walnut 5 Martin Machon M 25 Guatemala City, Guatemala 14 Clint Mathis M 21 Conyers, Ga. 2 Danny Pena D 29 Culver City 1 Matt Reis G 23 Mission Viejo 3 Greg Vanney D 23 Tempe, Ariz. 27 Jose Vasquez F 29 Santa Ana 19 Welton F 22 Cambuci, Brazil
No. College 8 None 6 Williams 20 UCLA 10 None 16 Washington 4 Florida International 22 UCLA 17 Drake 23 Southern Methodist 9 None 12 University of San Diego 15 William & Mary 13 UCLA 11 None 7 None 5 None 14 South Carolina 2 None 1 UCLA 3 UCLA 27 Rancho Santiago 19 None
All Times Pacific *--*
Date Opponent Time Saturday San Jose 7 March 28 N.Y./New Jersey 7:30 April 4 at Colorado 6 April 11 at N.Y./New Jersey noon April 18 at Kansas City 5:30 April 25 Tampa Bay 7:30 April 29 at Kansas City 5:30 May 6 Colorado 7:30 May 17 at Columbus noon May 20 at Chicago 5:30 May 23 Dallas 7:30 May 30 Chicago 7:30 June 4 at Dallas 5 June 7 New England 4:30 June 18 Colorado 7 June 27 at San Jose 7:30 July 4 Kansas City 7 July 11 at Washington, D.C. 4:30 July 15 at Tampa Bay 4:30 July 18 Miami 7:30 July 25 Washington, D.C. 7:30 July 29 at Dallas 5:30 Aug. 8 at Chicago 1 Aug. 13 Kansas City 7 Aug. 22 at New England 1 Aug. 29 Columbus 7:30 Sept. 2 Dallas 7:30 Sept. 5 at Miami 4:30 Sept. 12 at Colorado 6 Sept. 16 at San Jose 7:30 Sept. 20 San Jose noon Sept. 27 Chicago 4:30