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Galaxy hoping to finish the job

CARSON, Calif. -- A measly three kicks -- by Jovan Kirovski, Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle -- were all that kept the Los Angeles Galaxy from its third Major League Soccer championship, and the hunger from last November's penalty-kicks loss to Real Salt Lake in the 14th MLS Cup has carried L.A's No. 1 soccer team through its preparations for this season.

Think so? Bruce Arena doesn't.

"Honestly, I've forgotten all about that," the Galaxy's head coach roared as he readied his squad for Saturday night's opener against the New England Revolution at the Home Depot Center. "That's last year. It doesn't play any factor in 2010. I've never believed that any season influences what you do the next year. ... It doesn't mean anything. It really doesn't. I don't think we've discussed it once."

Not even once?

"There's no point," Arena said. "It has nothing to do with anything that we're doing this year. It's irrelevant. It's a new season, new challenge."

Not everyone in blue and gold agrees with American soccer's most storied coach, but there are challenges ahead, some stemming from last season's title-game run, and deficiencies that needed to be addressed if the Galaxy was going to seriously challenge for its first championship since 2005.

The pluses: Donovan, the team's biggest star whether David Beckham is on the field or not, returns from a stirring loan spell with Everton at his sharpest. Buddle, who dipped from 15 to five goals in an injury-afflicted 2009 campaign, is healthy and in top form. The right side of the backline -- successive Rookie of the Year winners Sean Franklin and Omar Gonzalez, plus A.J. DeLaGarza -- is better seasoned. And depth issues have been answered by the acquisitions of Clint Mathis, three Brazilians and one of the league's "to-watch" rookies.

The big minus: Beckham, whose productive form and attitude was pivotal in the Galaxy's success last year, won't be arriving in July, maybe not until September, maybe not at all, after the Achilles' tendon rupture he sustained playing for AC Milan.

Beckham's absence will hurt, but improvement of depth almost everywhere on the field -- a must with CONCACAF Champions League games adding to the schedule, a reward for reaching the MLS Cup final -- and the return of nearly every contributor to last year's success suggests L.A. should be among the top tier of contenders, next to the Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake.

"We're miles ahead," Donovan said of where the team was at this point last year. "The biggest thing is we know each other, we know how to play [together]. ... We know what we are, we know what we aren't, and I think we're good enough to win any game in this league at any time."

Donovan, who won MLS's scoring title in 2008 and MVP award last year, needs four goals to become the sixth MLS player to reach 100.

Last year, he said, "we didn't know anything about ourselves. It was a crapshoot going into the first game. But what we learned quickly was that our character was second to nobody in the league. And now we've gotten better, our guys are a year older, we have more depth now, and we're just a much better team now."

Arena quickly transformed the Galaxy after taking over for Dutch icon Ruud Gullit for the final third of a horrendous 2008 campaign. Gullit's attention to detail was wanting, and a dynamic attack that led the league with 55 goals couldn't overcome shoddy defense. L.A. gave up 62 goals, 11 more than the second-worst defensive club.

Arena made wholesale changes to the roster, adding more than a dozen players, significantly central defender Gregg Berhalter, after 15 years in Europe; winger Eddie Lewis, after eight years in England; defensive midfielder Dema Kovalenko and versatile attacker Mike Magee, who had played for Arena with the New York Red Bulls; veteran left back Todd Dunivant, part of L.A.'s 2005 championship team; and Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, a World Cup vet with four seasons in England.

The Galaxy went 12-6-12 last year to win the Western Conference regular-season title, edging Houston on the head-to-head tiebreaker, and get to the postseason after three straight misses. But it had only 15 points after a 2-3-9 start, the second win didn't come until June, the fourth not until July, and a 7-3-3 finish was necessary to catch the Dynamo.

"I think we start 2010 in much better shape than 2009," said Arena, who guided D.C. United to the 1996 and 1997 titles and to the 1998 championship game before an eight-year, two-World Cup tenure as national team coach. "Hopefully, that translates into more wins the early part of the season. [Last year's start] put us a little behind the eight-ball."

Defensively, the Galaxy was solid. Throw out a six-goal aberration by FC Dallas in mid-September, and L.A. surrendered only 25 goals, best in the league. Berhalter and Dunivant provide savvy, and Franklin and Gonzalez have played beyond their years. Ricketts was in the upper-tier of netminders in MLS, alongside Seattle's Kasey Keller, Houston's Pat Onstad and Chivas USA's Zach Thornton.

The attack was the problem, even with Donovan and Beckham. L.A. scored three goals only once, and against the worst team in the league, and had one or none in 22 of 35 competitive matches, including MLS playoffs and U.S. Open Cup qualifying.

"We will [be better]," promised associate head coach Dave Sarachan. "We have good attacking players, but you can never have enough. It's always been my philosophy: You can never run out of those kinds of players."

The addition of the much-traveled Mathis, 33, in his third stint with L.A., is meant to add weight to the attack. He's versatile, capable of playing up front, out wide or in the middle of midfield, and he adds dimensions the Galaxy has lacked.

"He's a creative player, willing to take chances -- a crafty, savvy guy," said Sarachan, a former Chicago Fire head coach who previously served as Arena's assistant at the University of Virginia, D.C. United and with the U.S. national team. "The thing about Clint, he's got the ability to finish with both feet, and he can see things early and slip great balls for others to finish. Not everyone has that quality. ... There's a variety in his game that will really add a lot of depth for us."

Mathis, who has 61 goals and 52 assists in 11 MLS seasons wrapped around stints in Germany and Greece, was outstanding for Real Salt Lake in the final, and he converted the first penalty for the Utahns in the shootout. He underwent knee surgery in February and returned to full training this week though he'll likely miss the first couple of games or so. Reserve attackers Kirovski and Alan Gordon also will miss the start of the season.

The only significant player to depart in the offseason was Stefani Miglioranzi, a holding midfielder who missed the last part of last season because of injury and went to Philadelphia in the expansion draft. The Galaxy is thinner at his position -- the hard-nosed Kovalenko, Englishman Chris Birchall and rookie Michael Stephens, from UCLA, are the only true defensive midfielders -- but has more options in the middle of midfield with the additions of Mathis and Juninho.

The Galaxy's most creative midfielders under Arena, especially Beckham and Donovan when he's not stationed up top, have attacked from the flanks, but Mathis and Juninho can provide central service.

Juninho, 21, is the most creative of the Brazilian trio, "a real threat in the center of the field," Sarachan says, "breaking through on the dribble, which we haven't really had."

Leonardo, 22, is a central defender with advanced foot skills -- he may step in as backline anchor Berhalter recovers from a minor knee injury -- and Alex Cazumba, 21, will provide cover for Dunivant at left back.

And, no matter what Arena thinks, his is a hungry team after coming so close last year. Second-best won't be good enough.

"If you'd told us at the beginning of last year we would be in the Cup final with a chance to win it in penalties, we would have been pretty happy," Dunivant said. "But when it was all said and done, we felt like we were the better team and should have won that game. ... Now we've got the same group coming back with that hunger that, you know, we were that close."

Sarachan agrees: "We came pretty close, so there's motivation to finish that. That's the way I kind of sense it. Any trophy that's out there, we want to win. If you have alphabet A to Z, and Z is the Cup, you can't go from A to Z. You've got to go to B and C and D, and so we've got to open up and have a good start to the season. We have to establish a good rhythm. And once you get good soccer going, the rewards hopefully follow, and that's trophies."