Last year, when the MLS Cup runner-up LA Galaxy had just made the playoffs again, this time with a Supporters' Shield on their resume, I asked Landon Donovan what made this year's squad different. He said the team had grown together, that everyone was on the same page. Things looked good after the opening series with Seattle, but then LA laid an egg against FC Dallas.
So what's changed from last year to this year? If last year was marked by the holes the Galaxy had that were eventually exposed, this year has seen the Galaxy play like a team that doesn't know they're supposed to be human.
Not that the season has been perfect, but it's come as close as any in some time. The Galaxy's 67 points ties the MLS record set by the Galaxy in 1999. Over the last six years there have been three Supporter's Shield winners, and only one has won the MLS Cup, but to call the Galaxy just another Shield winner is selling them short.
The Galaxy have the third best defensive record in MLS history, allowing 28 goals in 34 games (0.82 per contest). Only last year's Real Salt Lake and the 2007 Houston Dynamo can boast a better defense.
LA became just the third MLS team in history to go unbeaten at home (another thing RSL did last year), and only gave up 8 goals in 18 MLS contests (only last year's RSL gave up fewer). The Galaxy ride an 18-game home unbeaten streak dating back to last year into the playoffs despite also qualifying for the Champions League Quarterfinals in arguably the competition's hardest group. Including those CCL games, the Galaxy went undefeated in 21 home contests.
Two things are becoming increasingly clear: last year's Real Salt Lake team was really good, and this year's Galaxy team might be better. One thing the Galaxy did better than last year's RSL is record shutouts, as the Galaxy tied the MLS record for shutouts in a year (17 set by 2000's Kansas City team).
The Galaxy finished fifth in goals scored; despite spending half the season without a real strike threat up top. LA also finished third in accuracy. Landon Donovan stepped up his game at the mid-point of the season, when it was clear Juan Pablo Angel wasn't going to become a goal threat. He was also comfortable stepping back once Robbie Keane was brought over, but surprising the Galaxy's best threat up top has been Chad Barrett. Barrett hasn't been the most accurate man on the pitch, but he's quietly scored as many game winners as Donovan (4 each).
David Beckham, in really just his second full MLS season, was the offensive star this year with 15 assists; seven of those were game winners. Baseball has a stat called Wins Above Replacement, and setting up almost half your team's wins certainly places Beckham well above replacement level. Really playing an offensive minded defensive midfielder for most of the year, Beckham has been one of MLS' best this year.
Despite what happens this offseason, this will be the Galaxy's third straight year leaving some mark on the MLS season. While the Beckham experiment started rough, the contract is finishing on the highest of notes. Surely, everyone in the organization wants to end it the right way.