Three minutes into the Galaxy’s first competitive game of the new year, left back Ashley Cole flattened Santos Laguna’s Diego Gonzalez with a kick to the stomach.
No one had even managed to break a sweat before the Galaxy served notice this season would not be like the previous one.
Defender A.J. DeLaGarza said the Galaxy was soft last year, especially down the stretch when it allowed 10 goals in three “must-win” games it lost en route to its earliest postseason exit since 2008.
“We weren’t winning tackles. We weren’t physical,” DeLaGarza said. “I don’t think any team was afraid to play us.”
That would be a good start for Bruce Arena, the Galaxy’s coach and general manager, who made toughness the focus of a busy off-season in adding nine players, including bruising center back Jelle Van Damme, punishing midfielder Nigel de Jong and Cole.
“There were issues that we addressed, one of which was the physicality of the group,” said associate head coach Dave Sarachan. “When we watched teams against us, we always [felt] like we’re getting manhandled. And we never returned the favor.”
The most obvious indication the Galaxy intended to break with its past was the acquisition of De Jong, who shattered two opponents’ legs in the same season and nearly knocked Spain’s Xabi Alonso out of the 2010 World Cup final with a flying kick to the chest.
“They were a very technical team. This year, with the additions, [it] definitely makes them stronger physically,” said Seattle Sounders defender Brad Evans. “A guy like De Jong’s not going to let some guy just pass it around. He’s going to get things mixed up.”
“You’re always aware, over your shoulder, am I going to get lit up here?” Evans said.
De Jong — who is, not surprisingly, a big NFL fan — downplays that. But he clearly relishes his role.
“It’s not about the reputation. It’s about the winner’s mentality that you have to show on the pitch,” he said. “I’m not really a talker. So I’ll do my best and let my feet speak.”
Arena started plotting his team’s makeover last summer when the Galaxy began inquiring about De Jong, 31, who had fallen out of favor at AC Milan despite signing a two-year contract extension with the Italian club. Arena was also aware that Cole, 35, a much-decorated former English national team star, was eager to leave Roma, where he was no longer playing.
But the Galaxy couldn’t commit to either until center back Omar Gonzalez decided whether he would redo his contract to stay in Los Angeles or accept a transfer and leave. Just before Christmas he decided to take the money and run, with Arena selling both Gonzalez and midfielder Juninho to Mexican league teams for a combined $2.25 million, clearing space on the roster and getting under the league’s $3.7-million payroll cap.
“You always have Plan A, B, C, D. You go all the way to Z sometimes,” Arena said. “But having been prepared we were lucky to be able to bring in these players. I could write a book on this whole thing and the different issues along the way.”
The Galaxy didn’t scout the 32-year-old Van Damme in person until just before New Year’s Day. But he had a clause in his contract with Belgian club Standard Liege that allowed him to leave in January, easing the negotiations. So within five weeks of Gonzalez’s departure, Arena had replaced him with three experienced players with top-shelf European pedigrees.
And thanks to generous contract buyouts by Roma and Milan, it cost the Galaxy just $1.3 million, or about what Gonzalez made on his own last year.
More important than even the money, though, was the fact Arena had stiffened his soft team, transforming its defensive posture from inviting to intimidating.
“With the players they have — like Robbie Keane and Gio [dos Santos] and [Steven] Gerrard — they are always going to have strength going forward. But they certainly look as if they’ve added a little bit more steel to the people who play behind the ball,” Orlando City Coach Adrian Heath said.
“The Galaxy have been very cleaver in this off-season. They’ve made some fantastic signings,” he said. “A lot of us will look on in envy.”
DeLaGarza hopes there will be a little bit of fear mixed in as well.
“Hopefully teams are more aware and … they know it’s going to be a tough game and they’re going to get hit and it’s going to be physical,” he said. “That’s kind of what this league is about, being physical. And those guys are good additions.
“Last year teams weren’t scared of us… Now we’ve got that.”