Chances are you could easily tell the Los Angeles Galaxy that started the 2012 season from the one that stood at the podium at the end of the MLS Cup Final on Saturday as it accepted the Philip Anschutz Trophy as MLS champions for a second consecutive season.
The LA Galaxy that started the season certainly did not look like the team that had steamrolled through the 2011 season en route to the MLS Cup title, as injuries, absences and an apparent hangover from the 2011 season played a role in the team stumbling to a 3-8-1 start, yet anyone who appeared set to write the Galaxy’s 2012 eulogy back in May would’ve underestimated the battle-tested resolve displayed by this group of players over countless years, and that resolve was more than evident the second half of the season, as LA was one of the best teams the last part of the season and in the end, was the last team standing after yet another grueling MLS campaign.
“I think we made it easy last year because we were exceptional the whole year. This year was different because we made it hard for ourselves,” Galaxy midfielder David Beckham said. “We didn’t start well. Good teams and good character in teams become good at the right time. I think we showed that this year.”
Coming off a 2011 season which in addition to its MLS Cup title, included advancement to the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League tournament and an undefeated year at the Home Depot Center, expectations were high for the Galaxy, which had just reacquired striker Edson Buddle to pair up with Robbie Keane as well as reacquiring Juninho on another loan after the Brazilian midfielder had signed a three-year contract with his main club, Sao Paulo. The Galaxy started off its 2012 season with two important matches, starting off with a CONCACAF Champions League match against Toronto FC in front of 45,000 rowdy fans at the Rogers Centre. The Galaxy fell behind 2-0, but eventually fought back for a 2-2 draw. LA then opened up the 2012 MLS Season at home against Real Salt Lake in a rematch of the Western Conference final from the previous season. LA took the lead midway through the second half, but allowed RSL to fin the back net three times and LA lost 3-1, its first home loss since the 2010 Western Conference final. That loss turned out to be a sign of things to come for the next three months.
The opening week loss to RSL was quickly followed by a 2-1 CCL loss to Toronto FC in the return leg, eliminating them from the tournament. The Galaxy got its first win of the season against DC United four days later, but that certainly was not enough to ward off what would eventually be a sluggish start to the season, with the low point coming on the last week before MLS embarked on a two-week international break. First came its first loss to Chivas USA in five years on May 19, then perhaps the most glaring result, a 3-2 home loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on May 23rd in which it blew a two-goal lead. LA then lost to the Houston Dynamo 2-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium on May 26 and the Galaxy stood near the bottom of the Western Conference with a 3-8-1 record. LA was then eliminated from the US Open Cup by the Carolina Railhawks by the same score three days later.
“I was coming in maybe once a week when those hard times were happening and those days that I would come in, everyone’s heads would be down,” Galaxy Center Back Omar Gonzalez said.
The slow start could be attributed to a number of factors, such as injuries, as LA went without Center Back Gonzalez for the first four months of the season. Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders also missed some time as he went into the league’s substance abuse program. However, the long break in June that followed would provide an opportunity for the Galaxy to turn things around.
“When the season ended last year, we had an endless tour of obligations and we couldn’t put this 2011 season behind us. And I think, as I look back on, it finally came to a close when we went to the White House in May,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “I just said ‘let’s put’ – I want to watch my language here – ‘this past us.’ And not only that but start focusing on getting things right.”
The attitude adjustment was evident the very week MLS play resumed. It started on June 17 at home against the Portland Timbers, as LA welcomed back Saunders between the pipes and the result was a 1-0 win, its first shutout win of the season. The biggest result of that week however came on June 20, as the Galaxy traveled to Utah to face Real Salt Lake. The Galaxy fell behind by two goals, but came back with three unanswered goals to steal the three points from RSL. LA wrapped up that week with a 3-0 home win over the then third-place Vancouver Whitecaps on June 23.
“The guys responded well, but oddly enough in June we still had a horrible run, but you could see things were getting better,” Arena said. “There was an important game, I think a lot of guys mentioned it, when we won in Salt Lake, which was just a character test. You could see that we kind of got that back and then we literally battled every day.”
Slowly but surely, the pieces started to fall back in place for the Galaxy. Gonzalez returned to the lineup on Independence Day, but more importantly, striker Robbie Keane also rediscovered his scoring touch. After scoring three goals the first half of the season, Keane returned after representing Ireland in the European Championships and started finding the back net often, scoring 13 goals to finish with a total of 16 goals on the season. Also rounding into spectacular form was Juninho, who also struggled the first half of the season, but emerged in the second half, scoring seven goals, most of them on his trademark long-range volleys. LA also played with its 2011 championship backline of Gonzalez, Center Back AJ DeLaGarza, Left Back Todd Dunivant and Right Back Sean Franklin for the first time in 2012 on August 12 against Chivas USA and looked every bit the part, neutralizing Chivas’ attack and marching onto a 4-0 win that night, which began a run in which it would earn clean sheets in five of its next seven matches, which included two CONCACAF Champions’ League matches.
“I think Bruce’s experience just took over and said ‘we’re going to be fine,’ (and) we ended being just that,” Gonzalez said. “In the very middle of the season everyone started turning around and everything turned out the way Bruce said.”
LA got as high as second place during that run, but eventually had to settle for fourth place in the Western Conference. The Galaxy’s mettle was certainly tested during its playoff run, as it erased a one-goal deficit in the one-game playoff match against Vancouver, then fell behind by a goal on aggregate in the semifinal series against San Jose as the Earthquakes stole the first leg at the Home Depot Center with yet another late goal. Heading to San Jose midweek for the second leg at Buck Shaw Stadium, the Galaxy weren’t fazed, running out to a three-goal lead in the first half of the last leg against the recently crowned Supporters’ Shield winner Quakes and eventually coming out with a 3-2 aggregate win. Against Seattle in the conference final, LA raced out to a 3-0 home win in the first leg, but held on for dear life in a hostile atmosphere at CenturyLink Field, as Seattle closed to within a goal of the Galaxy before a Robbie Keane penalty restored some breathing room and LA came out with the win.
“Being successful doesn’t come easy. You have to work on it, (and) I think we provided that this year,” Beckham said. “All the way through the season, we had players out of games and young players and players that weren’t in the starting 11 come into the game and perform. This game and this championship is about the whole squad, not just the starting 11.”