There was a feeling at the beginning of the 2011 Major League Soccer season that it was now or never for the current era of LA Galaxy. Not only was David Beckham’s Galaxy contract entering its final year, but coach Bruce Arena and the Galaxy front office had clearly been building for the short term, bringing in the likes of Chad Barrett and Juan Pablo Angel even as other sides began laying the foundations for a future MLS that focuses a little more on the development of young (and American) players.
Arena’s short term brief was therefore quite simple: win MLS Cup. The Galaxy, easily the most impressive team in the league, will be looked back upon as the side that cruised through 2011 without breaking a sweat. Although far from flawless, they comfortably won Supporters Shield (awarded to the team that wins the most points in the regular season) and then eased their way through the playoffs and into MLS Cup, the season’s showpiece game and the 90 minutes that crown the true champions of Major League Soccer.
Because they finished as the top seed in the division, the Galaxy benefited from home advantage in Sunday evening’s match against Dom Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo and they made it count. Landon Donovan’s goal in the middle of the second half at the Home Depot Center was enough to establish the Western Conference champions’ supremacy over their Eastern Conference counterparts, and secured the Galaxy’s third MLS title.
LA won the title this season because of their strong squad and several high-quality individual players. Omar Gonzalez, handed the individual Defender of the Year award, is proving to be a superb acquisition for the Galaxy and was a dominant force throughout the season. Donovan was his usual self, consistently offering a creative and speedy threat and chipping in with plenty of goals, particularly in the first half of the season, while Beckham had the best season of his five in Major League Soccer. The former England captain put in a real shift in 2011 and finally made the contributions everyone was expecting of him, albeit without many goals.
Special praise must also go to Josh Saunders, who stepped in to play in goal and did a fantastic job in his 18 starts, keeping a number of clean sheets and making a genuine case to become LA’s number one goalkeeper.
It should be acknowledged that LA are the most expensively assembled team in MLS and arguably didn’t face too much real competition. It’s certainly true that a team of the Galaxy’s quality can achieve anything in domestic American football that it sets its collective mind to, but such application is not always present. It was there this season and the other contenders never really looked like stopping them.
Real Salt Lake were the most fancied team ahead of the season, but could not maintain the momentum of their 2009 MLS Cup success and a fine 2010. Distracting factors like an admirable run to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League and the long-term injury of talismanic playmaker Javier Morales didn’t help their cause. Seattle, probably the second best team in the league, are doing themselves no favours by developing a habit of capitulating in the playoffs - strange for a team that’s been otherwise successful in cup football in its current incarnation.
Perhaps the most disappointing lack of competition came from New York Red Bulls. Itself resplendent with designated players, New York is the club that really let MLS down this season with a series of long winless streaks and an appallingly obvious inability to defend set pieces or kill off matches, not to mention the occasionally iffy conduct, form and comments of Rafael Marquez.
Regardless of the level of competition, the Galaxy should be applauded for setting out their stall to win the title and getting the job done. However, their experience-over-youth approach does leave open some questions about where they go over the next three or five years as the MLS focus tilts slightly in the opposite direction.
As well as MLS Cup, November also brings the awarding of several individual accolades. DC United’s Dwayne De Rosario - who started the season with Toronto and also played for New York in a year of upheaval - scooped the league’s Most Valuable Player award despite United’s failure to reach the playoffs. It’s difficult to begrudge De Ro his award because he had a fantastic season, but runner-up Brad Davis helped to guide Houston all the way to MLS Cup. Rookie of the Year CJ Sapong (Sporting Kansas City) absolutely walked it for that award, as did the aforementioned Gonzalez for Defender of the Year. LA representatives won two further awards, with Beckham picking up Comeback Player of the Year and Bruce Arena being rewarded for his success in the dugout.
Chris Nee is the author of The Stiles Council, a website about the England national team.