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This Galaxy Has Only Just Begun to Form

Soccer: Zambrano relying heavily on youth as L.A. opens MLS season tonight against Colorado.

March 20, 1999|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a gray and chilly morning in Oxnard, the sort of morning when rain and sea mist sink deep into the bones and summer seems far away.

Octavio Zambrano, wearing a dripping black poncho, stood unmoving on the sideline, staring across the field as his Galaxy players--or at least most of them--drilled on the first day of spring training.

Zambrano was only mildly concerned about the several missing players.

There was no Dan Calichman, the Galaxy captain having been traded to the New England Revolution in the off-season. There was no Mauricio Cienfuegos, the playmaker who was home in El Salvador, embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with Major League Soccer.

Also absent was striker Carlos Hermosillo, still playing for Necaxa in the Mexican league and debating whether to return.

Winger Cobi Jones was there, but he had arrived late from Florida after the U.S. national team's victory over Germany a few days earlier and was only a spectator for now.

Also watching from the sideline, his left knee wrapped in ice after a bad landing, was Steve Jolley, the defender whose sparkling 1998 season had, in part, prompted the Calichman trade.

Zambrano was taking it all in stride. His focus was on the future, specifically the young players he has brought to the team. If there is a theme to the Galaxy's 1999 season, which begins today with a game against the Colorado Rapids at 7:30 p.m. at the Rose Bowl, it is this: If they're good enough, they're old enough.

But will the team's new owner, Denver billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, have the patience to allow Zambrano to build for tomorrow at the possible expense of today?

"I don't know and I really don't care because I've made up my mind that this is the right thing to do," Zambrano said. "And regardless of my personal situation with this club, I think time will show that making a movement toward youth this year will prove to be the right move for this club. Whether it's for this year or the years to come, I'm convinced it's the right move. I would not hesitate to do it again.

"I think guys like Jolley, [Clint] Mathis, [Joe] Franchino and [Daniel] Hernandez are guys who need to play now, not later. I think it would be a disservice to them and to the club to have them wait another year to give them the reins."

Those four, none older than 23, are probable starters, but Zambrano's youth movement hasn't ended there. He has acquired four even younger players, each of whom will be pushing to make the lineup.

There is, for example, Tony Soto, a 22-year-old defender from Dallas by way of Southern Methodist.

There is Gabe Eastman of Modesto, also a defender. He turned 22 only a couple of weeks ago.

There is Marvin Quijano, a forward from, in order, El Salvador, North Hollywood and Rio Hondo Community College. He's only 19.

And then, to show just how strongly Zambrano believes youth and enthusiasm--coupled with some decent coaching and the wiser heads of such veterans as Robin Fraser, Paul Caligiuri and Danny Pena--can have an impact in MLS, there is midfielder Jaime Estupinan.

He is 17.

Zambrano found Estupinan in Guayaquil, Ecuador, not far from his own home farther down the coast.

"He's a kid with an incredible future," Zambrano said. "The way he plays, it doesn't seem like he's a 17-year-old player. He has a tremendous future. I think that it will all depend on how quickly he can grasp the American game.

"The difference between the Ecuadorean game and the American game is marked. It's more technical down south, less physical. Here, it's a lot more physical, although he has come into a team that is highly technical. So I think it's going to be good for him. Now that I've seen him play a few games in preseason, I'm encouraged about the possibility of his making the team."

The way the Galaxy shapes up, the starting lineup will look something like this:

Kevin Hartman, 24, will be the No. 1 goalkeeper, having won that position last season. Matt Reis, 24 next Sunday, will be his backup.

Ezra "E.Z." Hendrickson, 27, will start at right back. Fraser, 32 and newly appointed as the team's captain, and the 23-year-old Jolley, if he is fully recovered from arthroscopic surgery, will be the center backs. Greg Vanney, 24, will reclaim the left back position he lost to Franchino last season.

In the midfield, the lineup depends on when and if Cienfuegos returns and whether he is match fit. He and MLS are still negotiating his new contract.

If Cienfuegos is not available, Zambrano plans to use three 22-year-olds--Mathis, Hernandez and Franchino--with the first two sharing the playmaking duties. Mathis also could be used as an out-and-out attacker. Pena, 30, will be the holding, or defensive, midfielder.

Since Hermosillo will not be here until May at the earliest, if at all, the forward line will be some combination of Jones, Mathis and Welton. Chances are, the exact formation will change from game to game and even during games.

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