When Bruce Arena took over as the Galaxy's coach and general manager in August 2008, the team was a laughingstock. The defense, worst in MLS, had leaked 42 goals in 20 games. The two stars, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, barely spoke to each other. Los Angeles finished with just 33 points, tied for the fewest in MLS, and left Arena with a salary-cap mess for 2009—too many overpaid underperformers. "A lot of teams positioned themselves to be good and then had to cut back," says Arena. "We actually positioned ourselves to be bad and had to cut back."
Now look. As the playoffs start this week, the reborn Galaxy (12-6-12) is the top seed in the Western Conference and a serious contender to win the 14th MLS Cup, in Seattle on Nov. 22. How did Arena do it? For starters he brought in 18 new players, rebuilding the defense through veteran pickups (Jamaican international Donovan Ricketts in goal; U.S. World Cup vet Gregg Berhalter in central defense) and smart drafting (rookies Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza). "Bruce made a commitment to build this team from the back forward," says Donovan. "When Alexi [Lalas, the former G.M.] was here, it was always from the front back. That's not a way to win consistently."
The Galaxy has allowed exactly half as many goals as in '08, but there was more to the turnaround. Beckham's absence until July, the result of his loan to AC Milan, forced L.A. into what Arena calls "survival mode." It wasn't always entertaining soccer—the Galaxy ground out nine ties in one 10-game stretch—but it set the stage for a second-half surge once the team was at full strength. Since Beckham's return L.A. has gone 6-3-3.
Yet Arena's most impressive feat may have been the way he handled the fallout from Donovan's criticisms of Beckham that appeared in the book The Beckham Experiment. Instead of hoping the two would work through their differences, Arena brought them together and let them air their feelings. "To their credit, they've dealt with it in a professional way," says teammate Chris Klein. "The way they've played takes care of a lot of other issues."
Donovan, who replaced Beckham as captain, has nothing but praise for the English midfielder. (Beckham did not speak to SI for this story.) "David's attitude, passion and professionalism have been top-notch this year," Donovan says. "Now the results are coming."
It's a long journey from a year ago, and yet the Galaxy, which last won the MLS title in 2005, realizes there's an even bigger step to take, starting on Sunday in the first game of the two-game first-round series against L.A. rival Chivas USA. "The keys for us are maintaining our discipline on defense and in the midfield, and being more productive [in the attack]," says Arena. "If we do that, we have the chance to beat anybody."
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Greg Lalas, Luis Bueno and Noah Davis analyze the MLS playoffs at SI.com/bonus