Los Angeles Galaxy
MLS contenders to take on the world in Spain
By Jeff Green, CNNSI.com
The biggest game played by a Major League Soccer team this year won't come in the United States.
It will come in Madrid, Spain, where the five-and-a-half-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy faces FIFA team of the century Real Madrid.
The Galaxy travels to Spain this July for the FIFA Club World Championship and plays the 2000 European champions on their home turf at the fabled Santiago Bernabeu stadium, guaranteed to bring home prize money (an estimated $2.5 million) that exceeds the annual salary cap for the entire team (about $1.7 million).
"It's really the opportunity for MLS, and us as MLS' representative, to show that soccer in America is alive and well," said Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid, who also covets the chance to become the most internationally recognizable U.S. club.
How's that for a distraction from the domestic campaign?
After falling out of last year's playoffs in the semifinals to eventual champion Kansas City Wizards, the two-time MLS runner-up Galaxy didn't enjoy much of an offseason.
In December, coach Sigi Schmid cobbled together a lineup for training in for the January CONCACAF Champions Cup, beating Olympia of Honduras in the final and booking a trip to Spain. The win helped the Galaxy shed their reputation as a team that couldn't win in big games, giving the team its first silverware.
Contract disputes didn't make Schmid's job an easier. After playing under temporary deals for the Champions Cup, defender Greg Vanney tested offers in Spain and U.S. international Cobi Jones shopped himself in England.
In the meantime, Schmid went after forwards with his first three picks at the MLS draft in early February, assuming that Jones was a goner and knowing that Mexican star Luis Hernandez could miss more than half the MLS season due to his extended offseason loan and Mexican national team commitments.
Both Jones and Vanney eventually returned to the fold, with Jones' deal reportedly reaching beyond the MLS maximum of $270,000 thanks to a signing bonus and endorsement deals.
"Cobi dictates how our team plays to a certain extent," Schmid said, "and with him having that [fighting] spirit, that helps our team tremendously."
The signings left L.A. in danger of violating the MLS salary cap, forcing the team to unload veteran defender Robin Fraser, sending the league's 1999 defender of the year to Colorado for draft picks.
Schmid said he didn't expect to benefit much from any temporary additions for the Club World Championship.
"If we pick up a player on loan, we cannot use him in any league games," Schmid said, "and if we can't use him in league games, there's never really an opportunity to integrate that player into our team."
Without an allocation at their disposal, offseason acquisitions were minimal for the Galaxy. Schmid will therefore be looking for some of the Galaxy's young players to step up their roles this year.
Foremost among them are fellow Olympians Peter Vagenas and Sasha Victorine.
As he did with the now-departed Clint Mathis a year earlier, Schmid decided in preseason to use the versatile Victorine as a forward. The lanky 23-year-old, who played for Schmid at UCLA, will be counted on to bolster the attack in the absence of Hernandez, who -- despite fetching an MLS-record transfer fee in 2000 -- will remain on loan in Mexico until after the MLS season begins.
Meanwhile, Schmid will look to Vagenas to take more of the burden off of diminutive Salvadoran Mauricio Cienfuegos, the Galaxy's primary playmaker since their 1996 inception. New Zealand international Simon Elliott contributes a busy presence in the center of the field (and the team would benefit from a return to health for sharp-studded defensive midfielder Danny Pena).
But it's not just the younger players.
"We expect a bigger year from Cobi Jones on the club level," Schmid said. "I think the time is right for him to take that next step there."
What Schmid doesn't want in Spain is to find himself with the same player shortage that forced him to start defender Adam Frye at forward during the Champions Cup.
Possessing an opening for a senior international player but no allocation to improve the team, Schmid was left to work with the MLS draft, discovery selections and trades.
Lacking an allocation, the Galaxy lost out on the Landon Donovan sweepstakes when the Southern California native negotiated a move to MLS from Germany's Bayer Leverkusen, where the 19-year-old rising star was frustrated by a lack of playing time. Schmid's efforts to work a trade for Donovan with the San Jose Earthquakes were rebuffed; the trade offer had reportedly included Luis Hernandez.
With Fraser gone, Schmid will look to Vanney to step up his role and better utilize his passing skills in starting the Galaxy's attack from the back.
Danny Califf and Paul Caligiuri return to provide youth and experience, respectively, on the backline in front of dependable goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, while Ezra Hendrickson will resume his loping runs up the right wing.
Heaven on earth
The Galaxy also stands to make headlines off the field this year, with groundbreaking possible by summer on a stadium complex funded by investor-operator Philip Anschutz on the campus of Cal-State Dominguez Hills.
Stadium construction is among the league's top priorities, and the Galaxy would be the first team to follow the trail blazed by Columbus Crew investor-operator Lamar Hunt.
Anschutz has also been involved in stadium discussions with his other teams in Colorado, Chicago and D.C.
The Galaxy led the league in attendance in 2000, averaging 20,400 fans per game at the Rose Bowl. According to the Orange County Register, the club also leads MLS with $3 million in sponsorship sales, up from $400,000 in 1996, its first season.
The stadium construction would be a significant economic boost for the club, but the benefits don't stop there.
"Having our own stadium would probably be the closest thing to having heaven on earth," said Schmid.