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For Galaxy, nothing less than another MLS crown is acceptable

By the time the Galaxy hoisted Major League Soccer’s championship cup last November, it was recognized by many as the best team in MLS history.

Then it got better.

So when the defending champions open the league’s new season at the Home Depot Center against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night, the Galaxy will do so knowing that anything short of a second consecutive title will be a failure.

“We need to perform like we did last year. If not better,” said midfielder David Beckham, whose team had the best record in the regular season (19-5-10) and was unbeaten at home. “When you’re champions, teams are going to work that little bit harder. That’s what we’re going to come up against this year.

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“We had a great season last year but that’s over now. We are champions but that’s in the past now. We need to do it again this season.”

Things haven’t exactly gotten off to a rousing start, though. In preseason the Galaxy won just two of eight matches, and they needed a goal from Landon Donovan in the final minutes of regulation to escape with a 2-2 tie in a CONCACAF Championship League quarterfinal Wednesday in Toronto.

And while Coach Bruce Arena was hardly wishing for results like that, it has blunted talk that the Galaxy is building a dynasty.

“The only way we’re even going to position ourselves to have that discussion is to get it done on the field,” he said. “Last year we accomplished so much. To be able to achieve that same kind of record this year will be difficult.

“There’s a lot that goes into making a team successful. Talent is a nice thing to have but we’ve got to get all the other things right as well.”

Arena the coach certainly has enough talent, thanks in large part to Arena the general manager. In the off-season the Galaxy signed its former high-scoring striker Edson Buddle, who played last season in Germany, and re-signed Beckham, kept Donovan and Irish striker Robbie Keane from jumping permanently to the English Premier League and reacquired midfielder Juninho on loan just weeks after he left for his club team in Brazil.

Combine that with the prospects of a full season from Keane, who started just three regular-season games last year, and the Galaxy heads into the new season well ahead of where it left off the last one. At least offensively.

Defensively, there are some questions. After leading the league in shutouts and goals allowed last season, the Galaxy traded keeper Donovan Ricketts — and his MLS-best 0.77 goals-against average — to Montreal to create salary-cap room. Then, the team lost back line leader Omar Gonzalez, the league’s reigning Defender of the Year, for at least five months to knee surgery.

That leaves perpetual backup goalkeeper Josh Saunders — whose 18 starts in place of an injured Ricketts last summer account for two-thirds of his career total — saddled with new pressures. In central defense Arena will try to get by with rookie Tommy Meyer and veteran Andrew Boyens of New Zealand playing alongside U.S. national player A.J. DeLaGarza. Todd Dunivant, the league’s top left back last season, returns on the wing.

The new look defense is “obviously … the most glaring issue we have at the moment,” Arena said. “But I think we’ll get it right.”

Arena’s philosophy is that the best defense is a good offense. And the Galaxy certainly has a good offense with the return of Buddle, who led the Galaxy with 17 goals in 2010.

The attack begins in the midfield, though, where the Galaxy starts three All-Stars in Beckham, Donovan and Juninho. Add in fourth starter Mike McGee and a deep bench anchored by 30-year-old MLS rookie Marcelo Sarvas of Brazil and Arena’s team has the ability to control a game for long stretches.

“We’re dangerous going the other way,” Arena said. “It’s not like we’re a team that just sits back and waits for the game to come to them. … So teams can’t be focusing just on attacking us. They’re more focused on defending against us.”

Two other problems also figure to challenge the Galaxy — age and a crowded international schedule. The Galaxy has six starters in their 30s, and three of them — Beckham (who turns 37 in May), plus Keane and Donovan — have appeared in more than 500 games for their club and national teams combined.

And with both the London Olympics and World Cup qualifying conflicting with MLS play this summer, half the Galaxy’s starting lineup could miss time to international duties.

But that does little to change the Galaxy’s goal of stamping itself as history’s best, says Beckham, whose MLS title last season gave him three crowns in as many countries.

“I always want to win,” he said. “Whether it’s a friendly match, whether a World Cup match, whether it’s in the garden with my kids. I always want to win. I go a bit easier on my kids but I still want to win.

“That’s what my career has always been about.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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