Look past David Beckham’s glamour, past the scoring exploits of Landon Donovan, and the truth is that the Galaxy has a working-class soul.
Beneath their glitz is an outstanding defensive foundation, installed and nursed along by Coach Bruce Arena to the point where the Galaxy is favored to defeat the Houston Dynamo on Sunday at the Home Depot Center and earn its third MLS Cup championship.
Beckham might win international headlines but defense wins championships no matter the sport. Each member of the Galaxy has learned to embrace the concept of playing team defense above individual glory — including Beckham, Donovan and dynamic Irish forward Robbie Keane, who together will earn more than $12.2 million this season.
“I think it’s their whole team mentality to work hard and get behind the ball and make things difficult,” Houston forward Brian Ching said of the Galaxy. “When they do score goals it’s not like they’re going forward crazy and trying to score goals. They all get back responsibly on defense.”
The Galaxy’s hopes of defeating the Dynamo will start with the performance of its superb back line, anchored by centerback Omar Gonzalez — the league’s defender of the year — and fellow Best XI selection Todd Dunivant. The progress of Gonzalez, especially, has been impressive: he was the rookie of the year in 2009, an All-Star last season and this season, at 23, became the youngest player ever voted the league’s top defender.
“I guess next year he’s got to be MVP or else it’s a letdown,” Dunivant joked.
Good as that group is, the Galaxy couldn’t have recorded a record-tying 17 regular-season shutouts or a goals-against average of 0.82 without a total team commitment to defensive diligence, the less glamorous part of the game.
“I think everyone has bought into what Bruce has been selling, and that’s get into our shape fast and defend with everybody,” Gonzalez said Thursday after the team practiced in Carson. “From the forwards to the actual defense, everyone has been putting in the effort and everyone knows their roles.”
In 2009, Arena’s first full season, the Galaxy cut its goals-against total from 62 in 2008 to 31. The team’s goals-against average has decreased each of the last two seasons, and this season’s 0.82 was the third-best in league history.
Goalkeepers Donovan Ricketts (0.77) and Josh Saunders (0.93 in a career-high 19 league appearances) had excellent seasons but also got a lot of help.
“Defensively we’ve had the same group for three years now, the same core guys, and we’ve built on that every year and I think gotten better and stronger every year and you see the results,” Dunivant said. “When you’re constantly shuffling new faces in and out it’s really hard to build anything. And starting in ’09 we’ve built a good core and have just built on that from there.”
They’ve changed in the middle and up front and will have to adjust again Sunday to the loss of second-leading scorer Chad Barrett, who suffered a dislocated ankle in a freak training injury last week. While the names may change, the priority on team defense has not.
“That’s something we took pride in this year. We’re going to look to defend our home field on Sunday,” defender Sean Franklin said.
“It’s just setting our goals at the beginning of the year. We knew going into this year we wanted to win the Supporters’ Shield [best-regular-season record] and we did that. We wanted to advance in the Champions League and we did that. And now the final step is winning the Cup, and everyone’s on board for that.”
Dunivant said the team’s superstars set a tone by coming back to defend.
“You can’t just be a one-way player anymore in today’s game, I don’t think,” he said. “Our outside backs get forward, get crosses in and help the offense. Omar goes up on headers. All that stuff. There’s no more, ‘You’re a defender so you just defend.’ There’s no more attacker. You just attack. … Everybody has to be involved.”
That kind of shared responsibility will be crucial for them against Houston’s set pieces. The Dynamo has scored three of its five playoff goals on corner kicks or free kicks and has enough size throughout its lineup to win battles for the ball in the air.
“We have to do a good job getting on bodies. We can’t give them space to jump because if they do that, they’re obviously bigger than us and they’re going to get good service in,” Dunivant said. “We’ve got to get tight to their men and put an arm on them. If we don’t do that, they’ll have a free run and it’s going to be difficult.”
Arena tried to downplay Houston’s potential height advantage. “It’s like any other game,” he said. “It’s about knowing your responsibilities and doing a good job on the matchup.”
In other words, it’s about continuing the less-than-glamorous team defense the Galaxy has played so well.