CARSON -- David Beckham's signing, made official last week, answered the greatest of offseason questions for the Galaxy. As the club heads into preseason training, with its first on-field session slated for Monday morning at Home Depot Center, there's one more gnawing concern: the backline.
It was defense that made the difference in L.A.'s runs last season to the MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield titles, with Omar Gonzalez's exquisite play at center back setting the tone for a club that tied the Major League Soccer record for shutouts, with 17, and added five more in the playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League.
The torn anterior cruciate ligament Gonzalez sustained on Jan. 5, in his first practice following a short-term loan deal to Germany's FC Nuremberg, leaves a massive hole in the middle of the Galaxy's backline, and how they deal with it will have much influence on what they achieve in 2012.
Here's a quick look at the Galaxy as their campaign begins:
Best Galaxy team in history? Oh, yeah. (Sorry, '96ers.) In MLS annals? Hard to argue. They amassed 67 points (most of the post-shootout era) on a 19-5-10 campaign, was the only club in a remarkably balanced league that conceded less than a goal per game, cruised to the Supporters' Shield (as regular-season champ, quietly the most meaningful of MLS's prizes), then went 4-0 through the playoffs, capping the campaign with a 1-0 triumph over Houston, not nearly so close, in an MLS Cup final played before the home fans.
Beckham, playing his first full season with L.A., was astoundingly influential, Landon Donovan was brilliant at the start and again at the finish, Gonzalez was MLS Defender of the Year, Todd Dunivant's career-best year was rewarded with a Best XI honor, several others (Juninho, Josh Saunders, A.J. DeLaGarza, Mike Magee) repeatedly came up big, and the August addition of Robbie Keane (with struggling Juan Pablo Angel sent to Chivas USA) provided the missing piece: a top-class striker.
That's imperative in the other competition. After winning their group in the CONCACAF Champions League (the only non-Mexican club to do so), they head into the knockout stage in March. The tournament winner plays in the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
Head coach Bruce Arena is looking to improve depth and talent at the bottom of the roster, and he's made a few signings to aid in that. A couple of important players are gone, but, Gonzalez's situation aside, they've come up with answers: Saunders had already wrested the No. 1 goalkeeper job from Donovan Ricketts, who was traded to Montreal, and midfielder Marcelo Sarvas was signed from Alajuelense to replace his Brazilian countryman Juninho, recalled by Sao Paulo.
What else is new: Beckham's contract. His five-year pact ended New Year's Eve, and not long after -- rather quietly, considering the media hubbub speculating on what he'd do -- he signed a two-year deal worth a reported $15 million. We'll know the real figure when the players' union releases salary information in the spring.
Sarvas, who was player of the year in Costa Rica, is the biggest name and the newcomer facing the greatest expectations. Attacker Pat Noonan, signed in the re-entry process from Seattle, could be a force off the bench. Nick Noble, fresh from Sweden, bolsters the ranks in the nets. Andrew Boyens arrives from Chivas as backline cover. Inglewood's Jose Villarreal is a Home Grown signing from the academy. And there are seven draft picks and two trialists hoping to make the team, with first-rounder Tommy Meyer (center back from Indiana), Kenney Walker (central midfielder from Louisville) and towering Bryan Gaul (forward-turned-defender from Bradley) the most interesting.
Ricketts (and his big salary) are gone, and Juninho's two-year loan is finished. As big a loss: Gregg Berhalter, the defensive leader/assistant coach, who retired and took charge at Hammarby, a Swedish club partially owned by Galaxy owner AEG. Miguel Lopez's loan from Quilmes is over, and L.A. has ended its relationships with defenders Frankie Hejduk and Dasan Robinson and midfielder Jovan Kirovski.
WHAT ABOUT ...?
Finding a replacement for Gonzalez won't be easy, and L.A. might have to accept an inferior replacement. DeLaGarza could team with Leonardo, who was a starter at the start of last year, but he's still rehabbing his torn ACL and another loan deal from Sao Paulo has not been completed. A foreign signing is possible, perhaps likely.
Chris Birchall's fate isn't certain either. The midfielder was looking at options at home in England but apparently wants to return. That would be a plus.
Donovan (with Everton) and Keane (with Aston Villa), both on short loans in England, return just before the season begins.
WORKING TOWARD ...
The Galaxy have nine preseason games, eight against MLS foes, to prepare for their March 7 quarterfinal first-leg at Toronto FC in the Champions League, with their MLS opener three days later against Real Salt Lake at HDC. Final preps will take place in a four-team event (with RSL, New York and New England) Feb. 22-March 3 in Tucson, Ariz.