Times Staff Writer

Steve Cronin is about to experience a few deer-in-the-headlights moments.

The Galaxy goalkeeper, who has played only half a dozen Major League Soccer games in his first three seasons, suddenly finds himself as the starter.

On a team that boasts such vastly experienced international players as David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Abel Xavier, Celestine Babayaro and Carlos Ruiz, the last line of defense is a relatively wet-behind-the-ears 24-year-old.


It seems a huge risk for a team intent on reaching November’s MLS Cup final -- especially considering that Cronin’s current three backups are rookies.

Coach Ruud Gullit disagrees.

“If you never give a young keeper the chance, then he will never become a good goalkeeper,” Gullit said. “I have to give the goalkeeper a chance . . . the possibility to make mistakes. Of course, I don’t want him to make mistakes, but at least there’s no pressure on him and he has to learn from that.”

The learning begins this week. The Galaxy left Monday for Hawaii and the inaugural Pan-Pacific tournament, in which it will play two games. After that, the Galaxy will make a three-game swing through South Korea and China.

Chances are Cronin will start the five games, making the preseason tour a test of sorts. If he flunks it, the Galaxy will scramble to find another starter, or at least an experienced backup, before the MLS season begins March 29.

Alexi Lalas, the team’s president and general manager, said the matter was discussed when the Galaxy decided to trade last year’s starter, Joe Cannon, to the San Jose Earthquakes.

“We sat down and said, ‘If Steve Cronin is our No. 1 goalkeeper, are we comfortable that we’re going to win?’ Yes. ‘Is he going to make mistakes because he’s a younger goalkeeper and doesn’t have a tremendous amount of experience?’ Of course. But we were willing to take that risk and put our faith in him.”

Nonetheless, Lalas said, Cronin should not assume anything.

“We have a lot of confidence in him, but we’re not just going to give it to him,” Lalas said. “He’s going to have to work for it. We’re going to bring in other players that we feel are going to challenge.”

Cronin has enormous potential, something he showed as far back as 2003, when he was selected goalkeeper of the tournament as the U.S. finished fourth at the FIFA Under-20 World Championship in the United Arab Emirates.

Ian Feuer, the Galaxy’s goalkeepers coach, said Cronin is up to the task of being an MLS starter, even on a team with a history of top-class players at the position, such as Jorge Campos, Kevin Hartman, Matt Reis and Cannon.

“This is going to be a big season for him, but it’s not a make-or-break season because he’s a young ‘keeper. He’s going to win some games for us and he’s going to lose some games for us. I think the fans need to understand that,” Feuer said.

“Goalkeepers usually peak around 28. It’s a position like a quarterback, where you start reading the game and knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time. To get that, you need to play games, and that’s what we’re willing to do with Cronin right now.”

The Sacramento-born Cronin, from Santa Clara University, has sat on the Galaxy bench -- and on the Earthquakes’ bench before that -- long enough to realize that if his time has come, he needs to seize the moment.

“I feel like this is definitely my team and I’m ready to go,” he said. “I see it as a completely different challenge. My challenge to date has always been to come in and try to impress as much as possible and do well with the games I get. Now I’m going to get the games and I have to do well in every one of them.”

It has been a long wait to be No. 1, but Cronin has shown the patience required.

“Throughout my career, I expected it to happen at some point and I’m glad it happened here,” he said.

The ultimate confidence boost for Cronin has come from none other than Beckham.

“I saw last season with Steve that he’s a talented ‘keeper,” Beckham said. “I’m sure he’s looking forward to the season. It’s always a boost when situations turn around and they have done for Steve. Hopefully, he’ll be a great goalkeeper this season for us.”