Successful teams usually don't like to tinker with winning formulas, but the LA Galaxy don't have a much of a choice.
Head coach Bruce Arena made two significant changes to his starting lineup ahead of Thursday's 2-2 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes at The Home Depot Center, part of what appears to be his grand master plan for a heavy schedule of upcoming matches.
Leonardo replaced Gregg Berhalter in central defense on Thursday and Dema Kovalenko took over for Chris Birchall at holding midfielder. Arena's idea is to get as many players ready as possible for what is shaping up to be the team's busiest portion of their 2010 schedule.
Following Thursday night's hard-earned draw the Galaxy return to action on Tuesday when they host the Puerto Rico Islanders in the first leg of their Preliminary Round series of the CONCACAF Champions League. Arena and the Galaxy's four All-Stars -- forward Edson Buddle, midfielder Landon Donovan, defender Omar Gonzalez and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts -- then fly to Houston for the MLS All-Star Game against Manchester United on Wednesday. Those five will return home the next day to prepare for an MLS game against the Chicago Fire on Sunday, Aug. 1, followed by a trip to Puerto Rico for the return leg of their Champions League series in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Aug. 4 and finally the much-anticipated friendly with Real Madrid at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, Aug. 7.
Counting last Sunday's 2-1 victory at D.C. United, that's a staggering six matches in just 17 days.
"We have a lot of games ahead of us," Arena said. "There's no other way to get guys minutes. Kovalenko hasn't played in a long time" -- his last appearance was in the second game of the season on April 1, when he suffered a strained right hamstring -- "and we have no other way to move him along and get him ready and play and contribute. He has to play.
"Leonardo is an excellent defender and we need to put him in there.
There's going to be situations in a couple of months where we need to rotate our center backs and our holding midfielders. We have to play these players ... there's no other way to get them in position as we move forward to help our team. We can't have a situation where six weeks down the road we have a suspension or injury and expect our guys to step on the field and not miss a beat. They had to play.
"It killed me to have to take Gregg out," Arena went on. "He's been excellent, but he understood the situation. It's something we're trying to do as we move our team forward."
Midfielder Eddie Lewis, who made his sixth league appearance of the season, was a second-half substitute for Todd Dunivant at left back. Tristan Bowen took over for Kovalenko at the 60-minute mark and helped set up the game-tying goal in the final minute. Jovan Kirovski was a late substitute for Alan Gordon and was praised by Arena for his brief performance.
The Galaxy have taken great pride in their depth this season, and these 2 1/2 weeks definitely will test them -- ready or not.
"I didn't know that until you told me. Thanks," Ricketts said with a grin when told of the upcoming schedule. "It's important we take them a game at a time. It's a big squad and a good squad.
"I think we'll be fine. We have pretty good depth and good replacements at every position on the field. It's good and a coach's nightmare at the same time."
Landon Donovan, who scored the tying goal Thursday in the 90th minute, said he is confident the team is ready for what lies just ahead.
"The beauty of this team," he said, "is that we have 24, 25 guys that are very capable of playing and contributing. Throughout the year you've seen all sorts of guys step in and help and make a difference.
"It's going to continue that way. We have a lot of games coming up, we're all prepared for it and everybody's got to be ready to play."