CARSON, Calif. – The two-time defending MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy have had strong seasons from their usual cast of characters as they embark on their quest for a third consecutive title. Robbie Keane finished fourth in MLS with 16 goals, Landon Donovan added 10 goals and nine assists, the combination of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas has been ever present in central midfield while Omar Gonzalez has once again marshaled a stout Galaxy defense.
But they also have not been without their share of noteworthy additions. For every impressive exploit of Keane, Donovan or Gonzalez, who are all looking for their third straight MLS Cup championship, there have been top performances from the likes of Gyasi Zardes, Kofi Opare and Jaime Penedo, who are all looking for their first titles in a Galaxy shirt.
Zardes, a 22-year-old rookie who was signed as a Homegrown player last December, has played in 27 league games for the club, making 23 starts while tallying four goals and four assists. Used primarily up front during his college and Academy career, Zardes has blossomed into a particularly dangerous attacking player since being pushed out onto the wing at the start of the summer.
“He’s held up well physically, and he’s grown into a new position in midseason,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “And he’s done that for the most part pretty well.
“We have to get him a little more consistent and I think he has been. Obviously we’d like to see him do better with his chances because he’s had a number of chances this year. I think a little bit more time and a little bit more experience with help him there.”
Penedo, the Panamanian national team goalkeeper who was signed in early August, has been solid, to say the least, since taking over for Carlo Cudicini in net. They’re still talking about his stunning save on Vancouver’s Jordan Harvey in the Galaxy’s 1-0 victory over the Whitecaps on Aug. 24 and he has four shutouts in nine league appearances to go along with a 0.78 goals-against average that ranks second in MLS behind only New England’s Matt Reis at 0.72.
“He’s been huge for us,” said veteran left back Todd Dunivant, who is in his 11th MLS season. “He has a confidence about him that really exudes and helped the team. He’s saved our butts when we needed him to. He’s aggressive and strong and you can rely on him. That’s all you can ask.”
Arguably the biggest surprise among the three is Opare, who was taken in the second round (24th overall) out of the University of Michigan in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. The native of Ghana, who turned 23 earlier this month, had been limited to training and Reserve League appearances before making his first team debut with the Galaxy in a CONCACAF Champions League match against Cartagines on August 20. His MLS debut came on September 7 and with A.J. DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo all unavailable at different points over the final month, Opare has started each of the final five regular season games. In that time, the Galaxy recorded a 2-1-2 record and conceded just two goals while Opare himself scored the lone goal in the 1-0 home win over Montreal on October 16 for the first goal of his professional career.
“He’s been great for us,” said Dunivant, who admitted to knowing little about Opare when he was selected by the Galaxy in January. “He’s come on so strong and he’s really stepped up as the season’s gone on.
“If you told people even midway through the season Kofi would be starting for us, we’d be surprised. To be fair, he’d probably be surprised, too.”
Added Arena, “He’s developed a little faster. There’s some people that it’s too much too soon for them, but he’s been calm about it. He’s not indicated in any way he doesn’t belong on the field.”