Landon Donovan wasn't even with the Galaxy until the middle of last month. Yet, four games after coming out of retirement, he may already have put his finger on why the best MLS team on paper has suddenly folded like origami.
"When we're at our best, we're as good as anybody. So we don't have issues there," he said last week. "We have issues with do guys really want to do it and put in [the work]."
Those are issues the team has just eight days to solve, with Sunday's game in Houston (2 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes) and next weekend's regular-season finale with FC Dallas all that stands between the Galaxy and the playoffs. And if the team, riding a season-long two-game losing streak, doesn't make progress toward a solution in those matches, it could open the postseason with an elimination game on the road, a scenario that led to its shortest playoff appearance in eight years last fall.
The Galaxy, third in the Western Conference, have already qualified for the postseason, but they need at least one win in their final two games to guarantee a top-four finish and the home playoff game that goes with it. They'll set out after that behind midfielder Giovani dos Santos, who returned Thursday after recording a goal and an assist in two games with the Mexican national team.
Missing, however, will be captain Robbie Keane, who didn't train last week because of an undisclosed injury, and midfielder Steven Gerrard, out with what the team is calling a hamstring strain. Only Keane reported regularly to the StubHub Center for rehab, though, with Gerrard returning to Liverpool with the Galaxy's permission to tend to family business..
That doesn't bode well for a team that spent the two-week international break seeking the kind of unity Donovan talked about through a team dinner and in private meetings with Coach Bruce Arena.
Yet Donovan, who may be forced into his first start of the year Sunday, said Arena and the team may have turned a corner in training last week.
"One of his best characteristics, when things aren't going well, is can he identify what the issues are, can he translate that to the team and can he implement a plan to get out of it," Donovan said of Arena, who has coached Donovan in MLS and with the U.S. national team since 2000. "The last four or five training sessions have been really good.
"That's a credit to Bruce understanding that this is serious now. And I think we'll see a response that matches that."
However even Arena is in uncharted territory, with the Galaxy's two wins in their last 12 MLS games matching their worst run since 2008. They've also given up 12 goals in their last five games, a season high over that number of games.
Donovan says those stats demand some perspective.
"It's easy to lose two or three games and you think the world's falling," he said. "But the reality is, if we win two games we could … feel really good about ourselves going into the playoffs."
Arena is taking a similar posture. His team was built to win the MLS Cup and though the degree of difficulty has increased and the roster has changed – with Donovan replacing Nigel de Jong, who departed for Turkey – in recent weeks, that goal remains within reach.
"Where we are right now, we're positioned to win the MLS Cup," Arena said. "We're in the playoffs."