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As MLS season begins, this year's Galaxy looks familiar, minus one big star

Coach Bruce Arena says the team will miss injured David Beckham but can still compete for the league title.

March 26, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

Four months ago, the Galaxy ended its 2009 Major League Soccer season one kick shy of a league championship. Instead, it was Real Salt Lake that walked off the field with the trophy after defeating Los Angeles on penalty kicks in the final.

On Saturday night, Coach Bruce Arena's team goes back to the drawing board when it opens the 2010 season at 8 p.m. at the Home Depot Center against the New England Revolution.

The drawing board looks very familiar. Of the 26 players on the Galaxy roster at the end of last season, 20 are back.

Taking the place of the six who left are five newcomers: midfielder Clint Mathis, acquired from Real Salt Lake, midfielder Michael Stephens of UCLA, picked up in the MLS draft, and a trio of Brazilians.

Sporting the usual one-name names, the three — defenders Alex, 21, and Leonardo, 22, and midfielder Juninho, 21 — are all on loan from Sao Paulo FC. Arena, in an interview on Friday afternoon, said signing the Brazilians was a useful alternative to the draft, in which the Galaxy had only two picks and traded one of them away.

"We needed to bring in some young players and we needed to fill some specific positions," he said. "We needed help at the center-back position, we needed a left-sided player, and we needed a central midfielder just a little bit more attack-oriented. The three players that we got on loan from Sao Paulo addressed all those concerns.

"I tend to believe that these players are well ahead of college players, so it was a college draft in another way."

Two of the Brazilians, Leonardo and Juninho, are likely to start Saturday night against New England.

Otherwise, the Galaxy will have a very similar look to last season, with the exception, of course, of David Beckham, whose torn left Achilles' tendon will keep him sidelined until August or beyond.

Donovan Ricketts is the starter in goal, backed up by Josh Saunders, who proved a useful understudy in the 2009 final in Seattle when Ricketts was injured.

In addition to Leonardo, the back line will probably feature Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, last season's MLS rookie of the year, and Todd Dunivant.

Juninho is penciled in to play Beckham's central midfield position. "He can't pass like David Beckham, he's a different type of player, but he's a good player," Arena said.

Dema Kovalenko, Eddie Lewis and either Mike Magee, who scored the Galaxy's lone goal in the final, or Tristan Bowen will fill out the midfield. Bowen, 19, has made an impression in the preseason.

Up front, Landon Donovan, fresh off his adventures with Everton in the English Premier League, and Edson Buddle, are supposed to provide the goals.

Arena believes the Galaxy can again be there at the finish this season.

"I think 2009 was a real challenge, from the start all the way through to the end," he said. "It was constant tinkering and everything else. I think this year we're a little bit more established and there's not so much experimenting and juggling lineups. We're a little bit more settled in. Hopefully, that means we have a good team."

It always comes back to Beckham, who visited the team at the Home Depot center this week.

"He's not a loss for April, May, June and July because he wasn't going to be here" while on loan with AC Milan and at the World Cup with England, Arena said.

"But I'll be the first to tell you that we don't have any good alternatives to David Beckham and we're not going to get any. We're going to miss David, there's no question about it."

Beckham's unexpected midweek appearance at practice and in the locker room had an impact.

"It was a real boost for our guys and maybe it was a boost for David as well," Arena said. "Our new players were thrilled to see him."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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