Win over TFC got L.A. going

STEVEN SANDOR, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

When Bruce Arena took over the Los Angeles Galaxy, he didn't imagine the club would come close to an MLS Cup in Year 1 of his regime.

Arena, a former U.S. national-team coach and two-time MLS Cup winner as boss of D.C. United, inherited a Galaxy club that had the worst defensive record in the league and had come nowhere near the playoffs in the first two years of David Beckham's tenure in MLS.

Arena envisioned a long rebuilding process -- and brought 16 new players to the roster.

"I think reshaping our roster was our greatest challenge," Arena said.

But the Galaxy will be favoured to beat Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup at a sold-out Qwest Field in Seattle on Sunday.

Arena said it was a warm June afternoon in Toronto when he realized the Galaxy might be a special team, and not a rebuilding project. The Galaxy faced the Reds with top scorer and MLS MVP nominee Landon Donovan, on national team duty with the United States, and Beckham had yet to return from his loan spell with AC Milan.

The Galaxy won 2-1 in a game it dominated.

"We showed some great character on our team in a situation when it wasn't real favourable," said Arena.

"Each time this team got knocked down a little bit, they got back up."

It was on that day at BMO Field that Arena realized just how deep his roster was. Yes, as the season went on, Beckham and Donovan got the headlines, but the defence, anchored by MLS rookie of the year Omar Gonzalez -- who has played more minutes than any other Galaxy player this season -- and Jamaican keeper Donovan Ricketts, chopped the goals-against total in half. Veteran Jovan Kirovski, who played with Beckham as a teenager in the Manchester United academy, helped bring together the dressing room.

And, despite being booed by L.A. fans on his return from Italy, Beckham brought the team to another level for the stretch run.

"I never felt David wouldn't be able to handle it," said Arena.

The Galaxy, winners of the West, faces a Real Salt Lake team that snuck in as the No. 8 playoff seed because it won on the final day and got help, including TFC's massive 5-0 loss to the last-place Red Bulls in New York. RSL went on to knock off the defending champion Columbus Crew and the Chicago Fire in the playoffs.

RSL, which will be led on attack by former Galaxy striker Robbie Findley and midfield engineer Javier Morales, finally is playing to its potential.

"I have a lot of belief in this team, not based on results," RSL coach Jason Kreis said.

STEVEN.SANDOR@SUNMEDIA.CA


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