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A New Beginning, but No New Stars in the Galaxy

Soccer: With Campos the only notable exception, L.A. will take the field Saturday with the same squad as last season, but to what sort of reception?

March 20, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A couple of weeks ago, during a preseason tour of Central America, the Los Angeles Galaxy was playing Suchitetequez in the Guatemalan town of Mazatenango when an earthquake struck.

Fearing the collapse of all or part of the stands, players and coaches from both teams ran to the center of the field to avoid falling debris. Fortunately, the temblor was only a moderate one and the game resumed after a 10-minute break.

No such drama is likely to attend the opening of the Galaxy's third Major League Soccer season at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. But the fallout from the off-season could be just as unsettling.

In the low-stakes poker game that is MLS, the Galaxy will stick with the hand it has been dealt. What you saw last season is what you will see this season.

Minus, of course, a couple of cards--the joker, Jorge Campos, and the jack (of all trades), Chris Armas. Both were lost, via trade, to the Chicago Fire after the expansion draft.

So when the Galaxy runs onto the field at 7 p.m. to play the San Jose Clash, it will have a very familiar look. The look in the stands, however, might be decidedly different.

The Galaxy drew a turn-away crowd of 69,255 for its inaugural game in 1996, and 53,147 showed up for the first game of 1997. But how will Los Angeles-area fans respond to a team that so far has not signed any new players of note but has lost one of its marquee performers, Campos?

Danny Villanueva, the team's president and general manager, is realistic enough to know that anything above the Galaxy's 1997 average of 20,626 per game would be a plus. This year, the end of the season is more important than the beginning.

That's because the Rose Bowl will be the site of MLS Cup '98, the league's championship game, on Oct. 25. From the Galaxy's standpoint, it is far more important to fill the stadium that afternoon than to do so on Saturday evening.

Similarly, Coach Octavio Zambrano's assignment is not necessarily to get the team off to a fast start but rather to assure that it lasts the distance. Last season, the Galaxy was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Dallas Burn. This season, it is supposed to be playing for the title on Oct. 25.

And even if it isn't, the Galaxy season will not end there.

In an effort to make MLS a more integral part of the world soccer community, a new 16-team tournament is being launched this fall that will pit top clubs from North America with their counterparts in South America.

It is called the Copa Merconorte and features teams from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Venezuela. Defending MLS champion Washington D.C. United and the Galaxy are representing the U.S.

The Galaxy's first-round Copa Merconorte games, to be played home and away in September, October and November, will be against Cruz Azul of Mexico, The Strongest of Bolivia and Caracas of Venezuela.

Because it is taking part in the Copa Merconorte, the Galaxy will not enter the U.S. Open Cup this season, Villanueva said.

For the moment, however, the focus is on the MLS season.

The main change will be in the nets. The flamboyant, experienced Campos is gone. Kevin Hartman starts the season as the No. 1 goalkeeper, and another former UCLA standout, Matt Reis, will be the backup.

Life without Campos is going to make a difference for the Galaxy starting defensive line of Paul Caligiuri, Dan Calichman, Robin Fraser and Greg Vanney.

"I think it's kind of a trade-off, to be quite honest," Fraser said of going from Campos to Hartman. "In some respects, Campos is capable of unbelievably good things. And that's really comforting, knowing he can pull off unbelievable saves from time to time.

"But by the same token, Kevin Hartman is a great, great shot-stopper. Maybe we give up a little of the experience that we had with Campos, but he [Hartman] is young and he's going to learn.

"He's definitely very, very promising. He's coming along and he will be a great keeper.

"Another bonus is that we get a little more consistency as far as at least knowing what he [Hartman] is going to do."

In other words, don't look for Hartman to come racing out of the nets and suddenly appear on the halfway line with the ball at his feet. Or to change uniforms at halftime and end the game playing as a forward.

Brilliance and unpredictability (and a maximum salary) have made way for, well, consistency.

The Galaxy defense returns intact and the midfield is more or less unchanged too. Mauricio Cienfuegos will still be the playmaker, backed by Martin Machon, Cobi Jones and newcomer Clint Mathis.

Mathis, from the University of South Carolina, was the Galaxy's first-round pick in the collegiate draft. He at first opted to try his luck with Feyenoord in the Dutch first division, then changed his mind and signed with Los Angeles.

He is expected to take the place of Armas but will find it difficult to do so right away.

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