German Alegria

Abundance of tried and tested midfielders provide needed depth for LA

CARSON, Calif. – LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena has taken great pride in the deep roster he has assembled this season. But perhaps his greatest satisfaction lies in the midfield, which has been tested more than he possibly ever could have imagined.

Try winning the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best record in MLS, with the likes of David Beckham missing 23 games, Dema Kovalenko missing 21 and Landon Donovan missing six and you get an idea of the team’s quality depth.

Despite injuries, absences and retirements (Clint Mathis, with Eddie Lewis and Chris Klein soon to follow), the Galaxy have carried on, thanks to a midfield that somehow has persevered through sometimes trying circumstances.

“We have a team that’s built to win the regular season and then give us a real chance to win in the playoffs,” said Donovan, who scored seven goals and led MLS in assists with 16. “I don’t think there’s any team in this league that has the depth that we do.

“We’ve missed I don’t know how many games to different things. And now we’ve got guys who have played all year in (Chris) Birchall and Mike Stephens who will likely be starting on the bench. That says a lot about our team.”

Juninho missed five games but still managed to score two goals, including the game-winner over FC Dallas last week that clinched LA’s first Supporters’ Shield since 2002. Beckham, who tore his left Achilles’ tendon in March, didn’t return until Sept. 11 against the Columbus Crew and just now is rounding into top game shape.

Kovalenko missed 21 games with various muscle injuries, but Birchall was right there to take his place. Stephens, a rookie out of UCLA, stepped in during his teammates’ various absences and impressed with eight assists, second only to Donovan on the team. Alex Cazumba, a young and exciting but raw prospect filled in on the left, while fellow youngster Tristan Bowen, who started 10 games and was mostly used up front, saw time wide on the right. Klein and Lewis also pitched in when called upon on the flanks.

Arena admitted he has been fortunate to have such a deep and resilient midfield.

“It’s just been a fairly awkward year,” he said. “Let’s face it, we spent six games getting David in shape. You’re not supposed to do it that way, but you don’t have any choice. It’s not like you have other games you can play, reserve games and what have you. That’s been a bit of an issue, but we were willing to do that and take the time to move him along.

“It’s been a little bit odd the entire season. When you throw in the World Cup and everything else - sometimes you’d like to have some consistency in your lineup, and we haven’t been able to find anything until the tail end of our season.”

Kovalenko, who is expected to start in Sunday’s playoff game in Seattle against the Sounders, has been impressed with the versatility of the Galaxy midfield.

“Bruce and the coaching staff did a good job bringing in guys who can step in at any time,” Kovalenko said. “Birchy has played so many games, Juninho… Stephens has been doing well. Every game is a different combination, and whoever Bruce and the coaching staff puts on the field is going to do the job.

“It’s not 11 guys, we need everybody. It’s been that way all year.

It’s not easy to be the No. 1 team.”

The Galaxy travel to Seattle this Sunday, October 31 for a 5 p.m. match against the Sounders on ESPN2/Deportes. The Galaxy will then host Seattle in the second game of the two-leg, home-and-home Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday, November 7 at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN. BUY TICKETS

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