The hard work is over for Galaxy General Manager Bruce Arena, who spent the winter completely remaking his team, turning over nearly a third of the roster and adding big-name European veterans Jelle Van Damme, Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong.
But the challenges are just beginning for Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who must now blend those new and disparate parts into a winning team.
“It’s absolutely difficult,” team President Chris Klein sympathized. “When you have a team of big personalities, that becomes more difficult.”
And when you have a team of big personalities who are both aging and carrying a significant amount of baggage, the mix can become combustible.
Consider the Galaxy’s latest additions:
Van Damme, 32, is a bruising center back who has played with the Belgian national team and with club teams in four countries, the last of which he captained. But he was also sued once for racial abuse by an opponent who claimed Van Damme called him a “dirty monkey” three times in a Belgian league game.
Van Damme apologized nearly two years later and the case was withdrawn.
His life has been so dramatic, in fact, he wrote his autobiography before his 26th birthday.
De Jong, 31, has also left broken bodies scattered in his wake. He shattered U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden’s leg with a late challenge in a 2010 exhibition, delivered a studs-up kung-fu kick to the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final later that year, then broke the leg of Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa in two places during a Premier League game that October.
That has won the Dutch international the nickname “Destroyer” — among other unprintable ones — while a popular Spanish website ranked him among the 10 dirtiest players in the world.
With the Galaxy, that trio will join a dressing room that already features Giovani dos Santos, a two-time World Cup starter for Mexico who faced character questions of his own early in a tour of Europe that saw him change teams six times in eight years.
Arena and Klein insist the Galaxy has done its homework, thoroughly vetting the players through interviews with former teammates, opponents and coaches. Whatever issues existed, they concluded, were mainly youthful indiscretions the players outgrew years ago.
“Why would we possibly pursue anybody….[if] there was a suspicion on their character?” Arena said. “I have to support all of this with my club. My owner is a person of high character and integrity. And he wants his clubs to operate that way as well.
“So with any player, we make sure that we’re bringing people of the right character.”
The Galaxy certainly has a good track record in that regard. Robbie Keane of Ireland and England’s Steven Gerrard both captained their national teams and have been model citizens and effective leaders since joining MLS.
“On our team … we have guys that have certain character traits that can build champions,” Klein said. “So we’re quite confident with the locker room.”
The Galaxy might have to begin monitoring the training room though, because the additions of Van Damme, Cole and De Jong give them as many as seven starters age 31 or older. The core of the team — Keane, Gerrard and Cole — are all 35.
That could become an issue because the Galaxy is facing a challenging schedule that will see it crisscross the continent, playing nearly 50 games in two countries and four time zones in conditions ranging from the mile-high altitude of Denver to the heat and humidity of Texas.
What Arena, the general manager, has built, then, is a roster that is old and possibly cantankerous; a mix of egos and ages that must ultimately be molded into a team.
Fortunately, he has Arena the coach to do that.
When Arena joined the Galaxy late in the 2008 season, David Beckham’s second in MLS, the dressing room was a mess. Teammates weren’t talking to one another and they certainly weren’t playing for one another, stumbling to their third consecutive losing season while winning a franchise-low eight games.
A year later the Galaxy rode a harmonious dressing room to the first of four MLS Cup finals in six seasons, three of which it won.
That’s why Klein, who played for the Galaxy both before and after Arena’s arrival, is confident he’ll mold the disparate team he has now into a winner as well.
“We have the best guy — not only in our sport, but I think in [all] sports,” Klein said. “Bruce does it better than anyone that I’ve certainly ever seen.”