Saving Grace

Times Staff Writer

Lounging in the shimmering Stadium Club restaurant perched above the crown jewel of American soccer, the Home Depot Center, Kevin Hartman glances at the emerald-green field below and has the kind of flashback that would make anyone shudder.

Like some melting mirage, gone is the $150-million complex with the 27,000-seat stadium and state-of-the-art canopy roof that traps the raucous sounds of soccer fanatics, making for an international-party atmosphere. In its place, on the western edge of the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus in Carson, is nothing more than dirt and dreams and the sounds of passing big rigs on the nearby 91 Freeway.

"It was a pretty barren wasteland out here," says Hartman, the Galaxy goalkeeper who as a high school junior moved to Palos Verdes from Virginia -- "We weren't even good at bad soccer." -- and spent his first two years of college at Division II Dominguez Hills.

"There was a velodrome and some florists using the land, but that was it. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I looked at it as probably some of the most valuable property that was doing absolutely nothing."

At least until Galaxy's owner Anschutz Entertainment Group became involved and transformed the barren patch into the house that Hartman built.

"Well, I didn't get out there with a hammer," he said, "but I do shop at Home Depot, so maybe I helped pay for this thing."

Hartman's consistent play has saved the Galaxy's season, which continues today with Game 1 of a home-and-home, aggregate-goals playoff series against the first-place San Jose Earthquakes.

Sure, the defending Major League Soccer champions struggled through the worst regular season in their eight-year history, going 9-12-9, setting a league record by not winning a road game and scoring a franchise-low 35 goals. But it could have been a lot worse.

Hartman kept the Galaxy afloat with a 1.13 goals-against average, a respectable figure that tied him for third in the league with D.C. United's Rick Rimando and earned him team MVP honors.

Hartman, who led the league with 2,796 minutes in goal, was also second with a 78.4% save rate, two-tenths of a percentage point behind the MetroStars' Jonny Walker, who played in 16 fewer games than Hartman.

"He bails you out in certain situations where you're like, 'Wow,' you didn't think he could do it," said defender Tyrone Marshall. "He always comes up big. He's one of those prime-time players ... who inspires us to want to do good. You're down and Kevin lifts us up with his saves."

Hartman, who walked on at UCLA as a junior to play for then-Bruin coach Sigi Schmid, was drafted by the Galaxy in the third round (29th overall) in 1997 and spent his rookie season backing up popular Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos. He took over when Campos was traded to Chicago before the 1998 season, which coincided with the arrival of goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel, whose relationship with Hartman has been more father-son than love-hate.

"I work him hard and he works hard and he's still hungry," said Abdel, once a goalkeeper for the Egyptian national team. "That's Kevin's job. He's the keeper, the last man.

"And it's not because he's my goalie, but he's the [MLS] goalkeeper of the year."

Schmid, who joined Hartman with the Galaxy six games into the 1999 season, agreed, saying that Hartman was the league's "best shot stopper" and, as such, deserved some hardware.

It's an award that has already been bestowed upon Hartman, in 1999, when he set a league record with an 0.91 goals-against average.

It guaranteed Hartman nothing, though, and he endured three of the most frustrating years of his life, going through a divorce off the field and having to split time with Matt Reis on it.

"Everything about my life at that point was very exhausting," Hartman said, adding that his tumultuous home life only added to the uncertainty of his sharing the job with Reis.

"It was a threat. He's somebody that I totally respect and is a good friend of mine, but I feel confident [now], knowing that if my wrist is hurting one day and I need to kind of take it easy, I can take it easy. Whereas when me and Matt were battling it out, there wasn't ever an opportunity to do that.

"You'd been given the vote of confidence [as the starter] yet at the same time you knew if you made a mistake, it would be yanked away from you."

An exasperated Hartman had a sit-down with Schmid.

"I told Sigi, 'You know, I love this team, I love this community and I love the direction of this organization, but mentally, it's fatiguing. And if I have to go somewhere else to [ply] my trade, I can do that. It's not that big of an issue to me. I'll move on with my life.' Mentally it was tearing me apart."

Reis was traded to New England on Jan. 17, and Hartman has not had to look over his shoulder since.

"There's no resentment," Hartman said, "I just feel that I thrive better in a situation like this, where I can enjoy the game. It's a lot easier to work when it's something you enjoy."

Hartman, 29, figures to enjoy it awhile longer; he signed a multiyear contract extension last week.

The signing contributed to his newly static-free life. He's dating a computer graphics artist, and the kid who used to have his mother practice penalty kicks at him when he wasn't bouncing a ball off a tree to work on his reflexes became an uncle for the first time two weeks ago.

"Those are the things in my life that make me excited now," Hartman said. "To be able to play this close to home is one of the main reasons I decided to stay. I just feel so blessed to be able to play in front of my family and my friends and the same fans. And the fans have almost become friends just because we've been around together for so long."

And that's no mirage.

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