And then there were two.
When the Galaxy opens its seventh season at the Rose Bowl tonight, there will be only two players on the field who were there when a crowd of 69,255 turned out to see the team’s inaugural Major League Soccer game in 1996.
Mauricio Cienfuegos and Cobi Jones have run a lot of miles for Los Angeles since that April 13 afternoon, and they will run a lot more before the team moves into its 27,000-seat stadium in Carson next spring.
Cienfuegos has played 192 games for the Galaxy and Jones 183. No one else comes close.
Last season brought the pair their first real rewards for all that effort--victories in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
But the one bit of silverware that has eluded the team through three coaches, four general managers and six seasons is the Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy awarded each fall to the MLS champion.
Three times Cienfuegos, Jones and the rest of the Galaxy have reached the title game, and three times they have fallen at the final hurdle.
Last season’s 2-1 overtime loss to the San Jose Earthquakes was especially cruel.
Tonight at 7 the Galaxy meets D.C. United, the team that denied it the title in 1996 and 1999. And if the Galaxy looks familiar, it’s because Coach Sigi Schmid resisted making many off-season changes. The 2002 roster has only six new players.
Not that there was much need to tinker. For instance, the Galaxy has the best one-two goalkeeping punch in the league in Kevin Hartman and Matt Reis. One was supposed to have been traded in the off-season so that both could be starters, but MLS contraction put an end to that plan. Instead, they will battle for the Galaxy starting spot and probably end up sharing the role as they did last season.
“It’s a blessing and it’s a curse,” Schmid said. “It’s a blessing because they’re two great goalkeepers and it’s a curse because they’re probably the only two who have been together for five years in this league [with one having to be on the bench].
“We’ll just have to wait and see. They’ve been very professional about it. They’ve been very good about it. We’re going to have to play the guy who we think is better [at the time]. The good thing about it is our team is very confident with either goalkeeper and we feel we can win with either one.”
Then there is Ezra Hendrickson, widely regarded as the finest right back in the league. The lanky captain of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines national team had his best MLS season in 2001, scoring five winning goals from his position on defense.
Hendrickson doesn’t believe the Galaxy needed to change much. “We don’t rebuild, we just reload,” he said.
The retirement of Paul Caligiuri and the departure of Greg Vanney, who signed a four-year contract with Bastia in the French first division, meant the Galaxy defense did need some help, however.
It arrived in another Caribbean player, Tyrone Marshall, a Jamaica national team starter and a player whose speed and ability to play in the center or out wide will greatly benefit a defense that includes Alexi Lalas, Danny Califf, Adam Frye and Craig Waibel.
Schmid said he will wait and see how the defense performs without the vastly experienced Caligiuri and Vanney before making any more changes.
“We’re not going to panic at this stage and try to sign a defender right away,” he said. “We’re going to see how this group plays, but by the same token we’re keeping our eyes and ears open, we’re looking at people who can play back there because that’s an area [where] we might need to add some depth.”
Los Angeles’ midfield remains intact, with two slight changes. Cienfuegos and Jones are there, of course, as are Simon Elliott, Peter Vagenas and Alex Bengard.
Dropping back from the forward position he played with considerable success last season is Sasha Victorine, whose seven goals in 2001 were second on the team only to Mexican striker Luis Hernandez. Added Friday, from the Portland Timbers of the A-League, was Mexican-born Jesus Ochoa, who grew up in Riverside.
Schmid said midfield “is a more natural position” for Victorine, adding that he expects him to be as effective in the new role.
“He’s going to find his way to score six to eight goals,” he said. “I think it just makes us offensively a more dangerous team, a tougher team to mark.”
Opponents are likely to find the Galaxy’s offense difficult to contain.
The front line features four newcomers: Guatemalan national team striker Carlos Ruiz; U.S. 2000 Olympic team forward Chris Albright; as well as draft picks Gavin Glinton, a four-time All-American from Bradley University, and Alejandro Moreno from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, also added Friday.
Then, too, Brian Mullan returns from a promising rookie season that was cut short by injury. He probably will partner with Ruiz up front in a 4-4-2 formation, with Schmid also able to call on Albright, Glinton, Moreno and Isaias Bardales Jr. as forwards should he opt for a 4-3-3 lineup.
Ruiz is the key, however. The latest in a long line of foreign Galaxy strikers that includes Ecuador’s Eduardo “El Tanque” Hurtado and Mexico’s Carlos Hermosillo and Hernandez, he is the player expected to lead the team in scoring.
“Ruiz has fit in well,” Schmid said. “I think that what the guys really admire about Carlos is they know that if they play the ball into the box he’s going to fight and scratch to get on the end of it. That’s something that we haven’t always had.
“He’ll have some streaks where he won’t get some goals, but I’m confident that he’ll be our leading scorer this year.”
All of which is good news to Cienfuegos and Jones, the two originals who, as always, will be providing the passes that ignite the offense.