MLS Cup goes through Los Angeles, as long as Bruce Arena’s in charge

Winning three MLS championships in four years falls somewhere between “difficult” and “impossible.” The big spenders might be gradually separating themselves from the frugal savers, but all 20 clubs remain closely linked in quality. Parity might slowly be bleeding out of the league, but no one’s yet to spend their way into league aristocracy.

And yet, we give you the L.A. Galaxy, MLS Cup champions in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Yes, it was the Galaxy that pushed to make Designated Players a thing, and it’s the Galaxy retains its steady inflow of jersey-selling stars. But DPs hardly make championships an MLS slam dunk. Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City did the deed in the day of the DP without any globally recognized names to fill out the marquee. Plus, Seattle, Toronto and New York were fellow big spenders alongside the Galaxy for some of those years, and they have yet to hang that elusive first MLS Cup championship banner.

So how has L.A. so consistently remained in front of the MLS peloton? Let’s just lean on Occam’s Razor for this one. It says, more or less, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. In this case, the obvious and simplest explanation is the man with the familiar paunch and the hang dog face over on the Galaxy bench. It’s Bruce Arena, the unquestioned dean of MLS managers.

2012 MLS Cup - Team Press Conference

Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images.

Arena’s ego and confidence are legendary – but if anyone has earned the right to be an arrogant so-and-so, it’s this guy. He ruled Major League Soccer’s infancy by winning the first two titles (and advancing to the MLS Cup final in its third year).

At national team level, Jurgen Klinsmann may yet prove the right stuff to nudge the United States off its current sticking point. But until Klinsmann does, he’s chasing the “Arena Standard” in the only international competition that really counts around here, the World Cup. It was Arena who took the United States to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.

After his time with the U.S. national team and a stumble through the intractable MetroStars mire – just ignore his time there; through all the years only one coach ever some headway, Mike Petke, and the club fired him –Arena got busy establishing the Galaxy dynasty.

Is Arena some tactical savant? Of course not. He’s just a guy who understands how to put together an MLS roster. The game is about the players, he and others are quick to remind us. That’s not just a little chestnut he can put on “repeat” for the media. Assembling an MLS roster with all the constraints is not easy, but no one “gets it” like Arena

Arena’s edge is his careful mapping of the MLS player personnel landscape. He plots a prudent course, makes corrections quickly when necessary and then masterfully gets everyone, the well-heeled and the workadays, to buy in.

Yes, he has the benefit of seriously talented, seriously experienced stars. Say what you want about Brand Beckham and his array of media-savvy handlers, but the former England captain was effective and a dependably dogged competitor when he reached the field (after the photo shoots, torch lightings and royal weddings and such). Robbie Keane’s production, 53 goals in 84 MLS matches, has been outstanding; anything north of one goal every two games marks robust output, and the Irishman is well above it. And Landon Donovan is the league’s all-time leader in goals and assists, a big portion earned under Arena.

2012 MLS Cup - Houston Dynamo v Los Angeles Galaxy

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

So, yes, the coach been blessed in that way. But Arena signed off in one way or another on the DPs (either adding them or keeping them around), so he gets some credit. He drafted Omar Gonzalez when a few deciders around MLS wondered if the big center back had the foot speed or enough flexibility to turn his hips fast enough. (Toronto FC, by the way, chose Sam Cronin one spot ahead of Gonzalez; Cronin has been a decent MLS performer, a fierce midfield enforcer and adequate passer, but no one would pick him today ahead of Gonzalez.)

The big names aren’t where Arena has made the magic happen; rather, Arena is a master at blending the right, economically sensible role players with the superstars. This is where Arena, now 63, has truly hacked MLS roster construction within the framework of the cap.

It starts with identifying the right, reasonably priced foreign talent. Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas went quietly about their business over the last three seasons of being among the top two-way midfield combos in MLS. Stefan Ishizaki and Christian Wilhelmsson before him added experience and balance to the wide midfield areas. Two years ago Jaime Penedo helped stabilize a wobbly goalkeeping situation.

(Obviously, not all of Arena’s choices have been winners; you just know he wanted a do-over on the Carlo Cudicini fiasco. Even then, credit Arena and Galaxy management for recognizing their mistake and fixing it quickly. Too many clubs, afraid to say “We got this one wrong,” might have allowed that wound to become infected).

So, on wise, economical signings from abroad: check.

How about introducing young players and tactically hiding their deficiencies best as possible? Give Arena the checkmark here, too.

Michael Stephens provided valuable minutes as a rookie in 2010. Two years after that, rookie center back Tommy Meyer started all six playoff games, including the victorious MLS Cup final. A year after that homegrown signing Jose Villareal was just 19 years old when he made the first of his 12 starts in 2013. That was the same year Gyasi Zardes debuted with four goals and four assists, en route to bigger and better things, as we know.

When three DPs eat up a big chunk of salary cap, teams generally have little choice but to retain a handful of younger, inexpensive players. How that plays out and how well they understand their roles tells the tale.

2012 MLS Cup - Los Angeles Galaxy Training Session

Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images.

Similarly, in a cap-strapped league, identifying the right mid-level role players is absolutely essential. My favorite example here is Todd Dunivant. The Colorado native was already on his fourth change of MLS address when he arrived in Carson in 2009; that’s getting close to “journeyman” status. But Dunivant established himself as one of the most dependable left backs in MLS, starting in two of the Galaxy’s MLS Cup victories.

Dan Gargan was rescued from “journeyman” status last year; Arena turned him into a reliable, economical starter at right back.

Other good examples of Galaxy men who have been steady performers, content to be support-types while bigger names hogged up the glory: start with A.J. DeLaGarza, Sean Franklin and Mike Magee, all value-priced, versatile contributors in their Galaxy days. Players like Alan Gordon (five goals down the stretch last year), James Riley, Chad Barrett, Chris Birchall have played the water carrier roles at the StubHub Center, albeit over shorter stretches.

The real magic trick, perhaps, is making such a disparate locker room work. Arena has been a Zen master in that way, a la Phil Jackson, the NBA gold standard of sowing harmony among the higher and lower income bracket forces.

Arena has even rescued a “retread” here and there. Has he done it again with Edson Buddle, who apparently did well enough in a preseason trial to earn a Galaxy deal for 2015? Snickers would likely ensue if anyone else signed Buddle, who has a meager 10 goals 61 MLS matches since returning from a fruitless adventure abroad. But when Arena does it the reaction is understandably less gleeful.

The CBA forces willing, Arena and the Galaxy begin their quest for an improbably fourth title in five years on Friday, the first kick in Major League Soccer’s milepost 20th season. Oddsmakers have the Galaxy favored to do it again. Anybody want to bet against them – against Arena?

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