Twenty-two months ago, after winning their third MLS Cup in four seasons, the Galaxy appeared unstoppable.
Just one other team had won as many as two titles in the past 13 years. The Galaxy had five. In a league built for parity, they were a powerhouse.
“That’s a bit of a dynasty at this point,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said.
But Arena’s team hasn’t won a postseason game since, making Wednesday night’s playoff opener with Real Salt Lake at StubHub Center (7:30 p.m., TV: UniMas, Spectrum) something of a referendum on whether the Galaxy are a dynasty in decline or one that’s about to rise again.
Just four starters from that 2014 championship team are likely to start Wednesday and only five remain from the team that lost to Seattle in the first round of last season’s playoffs. That loss sparked an aggressive off-season makeover in which Arena brought in 10 new players, steeling the Galaxy for the grind of the regular season by leaving them two deep in quality players at every position.
That nine-month marathon has become a sprint, though, and the Galaxy, who finished third in the Western Conference, can’t afford to stumble since a loss in Wednesday’s elimination game will end their season.
“We’re in this position now so we know what’s to be expected,” said captain Robbie Keane, a three-time MLS champion. “That’s what everyone’s objective was before the season, to get to the playoffs. We’re here now. So we have to capitalize and make sure that we’re ready.”
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan holds the MLS Cup trophy while celebrating the team’s championship victory over the New England Revolution at StubHub Center on Dec. 7, 2014.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan, center, holds the MLS Cup trophy after a 2-1 overtime win against the New England Revolution for the MLS title on Dec. 7, 2014.(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan chases after the ball during the first half of a MLS Cup victory over the New England Revolution on Dec. 7, 2014.(Robert Laberge / Getty Images)
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan acknowledges the fans after playing in his final professional match following a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final on Dec. 7, 2014.(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan leaves the field with the MLS Cup trophy after a 2-1 overtime victory over the New England Revolution on Sunday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan and his teammates greet young fans before the start of Sunday’s MLS Cup final against the New England Revolution.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
They may be more ready than they’ve been in months.
Injuries and international duty caused Keane, Gyasi Zardes and Steven Gerrard to each miss nearly half the season while Landon Donovan didn’t return from retirement until last month. Zardes remains sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone but Gerrard’s comeback from a lingering hamstring strain is probably just a game away. And Wednesday could mark the first time this season that Keane, Donovan and Giovani dos Santos start together.
The home-field advantage should also give the Galaxy an edge. Arena’s team has lost only one MLS game at StubHub Center this year. And in the playoffs the home team has lost just twice, league-wide, in the one-game knockout round, the last coming in 2012.
Plus the road has been particularly tough on sixth-place Real Salt Lake, which hasn’t won an MLS game outside Utah since July. In its last six games overall, Salt Lake has scored two goals, though two of those games ended scoreless and goalkeeper Nick Rimando has allowed just one goal in two other starts.
Want more numbers? No MLS team had fewer regular-season losses than the Galaxy’s six and just one had a better goal differential. Plus the Galaxy led the Western Conference in scoring with 54 goals and played to a league-high 16 draws. That last number won’t help them Wednesday since a tie will have to be broken, either during a 30-minute overtime or penalty kicks.
In fact, Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe said, none of those stats mean anything now.
“We’re starting over with a fresh slate. The season doesn’t matter anymore,” said Rowe, closing the book on a season in which he had nine shutouts in 30 starts.
“People that live in the past, they always stay in the past,” added Keane, summing up both the season and the state of the Galaxy’s dynasty. “I don’t care what people did last week or the week before. It’s about what we do now.”