It's not hard to remember the days when the Los Angeles Galaxy were the laughing stock of MLS. The self-crowned "jewel of MLS" was spending millions more than the rest of the teams in the league, but struggling. They weren't just falling short of winning trophies, they were nearer the bottom of the table then the top and turning one of the league's proudest clubs into a joke.
All of their money was going down the drain before the Galaxy brought Bruce Arena in and things haven't been the same in Los Angeles since. The manager overhauled the struggling team and has them in Sunday's MLS Cup Final, where they hope to complete the turnaround by adding a MLS Cup trophy to join their two Supporters' Shields in just Arena's third year in Los Angeles.
The spotlight was on the Galaxy after signing David Beckham in 2007. They had campaigned to institute the Designated Player rule so teams could sign high-priced players outside of the salary cap with an eye on signing Beckham, so much so that the rule was nicknamed the "Beckham Rule." Los Angeles paired the English midfielder with Landon Donovan, the top American in the league, but star power didn't help the Galaxy win.
In 2007, Beckham's first season, Los Angeles didn't qualify for the playoffs. The same was true in 2008 as the team dealt with team infighting, but more importantly, inadequate management. Ruud Gullit proved to be a failure of a manager, showing up last to training and being the first to leave. Alexi Lalas, whether powerless under the weight of Beckham and Gullit's influence or not, failed to put together much of anything around the Galaxy's stars, especially at the back where the Los Angeles defense was amongst the worst in league history. As a result, the Galaxy got very comfortable near the bottom of the MLS table.
Fed up with the team's horrific performance, owner AEG cleaned house in August of 2008. Gullit and Lalas were given the boot and Arena, owner of two MLS Cups with D.C. United and the United States national team's most successful coach, was brought in to take over the entire soccer side of the club, from personnel decisions to management of the squad. The team's defense, discipline and organization improved immediately; not that it got them into the playoffs instantly, but it was a step in the right direction.
With an offseason to overhaul the roster, Arena got to work. His first two draft picks were Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza and he signed Mike Magee, Todd Dunivant, Donovan Ricketts and Josh Saunders in that same offseason. Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis and Chris Birchall were midseason additions, and a year after being the punchline to every joke in MLS, LA was in the MLS Cup final.
A loss to Real Salt Lake kept them from getting the trophy they wanted, but Arena signed Juninho prior to the 2010 season and the Galaxy won the Supporters' Shield. Robbie Keane and Chad Barrett joined in 2011 and Los Angeles added another Supporters' Shield. Now, they are just one win shy of winning MLS Cup, with the Houston Dynamo standing in the way of the club, led by Arena, completing the turnaround from laughing stock to league champion.
Merely listing the names of Arena's acquisitions doesn't quite make clear the brilliance of Arena in the last three years, though. Gonzalez was an unexpected, but not shocking choice by Arena with the third overall pick. DeLaGarza was considered by nearly everyone to be too small to play in the center of defense, yet that is where he's paired with Gonzalez to provide the spine in the Galaxy's league-best defense.
Most amazing of Arena's work has been his ability to take players off the scrapheap and make them useful complements to Beckham and Donovan. Juninho was discarded by Sao Paulo, Magee was a bust in New York and Dunivant was an aging and thoroughly average left back. Saunders was playing in the USL, Birchall was a journeyman from England who couldn't find a home in the second or third tier of English football and Barrett was the poster boy for forwards with no first touch who made a habit of putting his shots in Row Z.
If you asked anyone three years ago whether any of the above players could start for a team in the MLS Cup Final, he would struggle to get an answer out through all of the laughter. Not only has Arena made use of one of those players, he's made starters out of five of them with the other being the team's first option off of the bench.
Juninho is one of the best two-way central midfielders in MLS, Saunders has become an all-league goalkeeper, Magee has scored in each of LA's playoff games, Dunivant is an MLS Best XI selection and the loss of Barrett to injury prior to Sunday's final actually elicited groans and worry from Galaxy supporters.
On Sunday, the spotlight is going to be on Beckham, Donovan and Keane, but two of those stars were around in 2007 and 2008. The Galaxy were still winning Supporters' Shield titles the last two years and advanced to the MLS Cup final in 2009 without a forward that had the quality of Keane.
The stars get the attention, but the Galaxy (and RSL) proved in 2009 that the stars don't win trophies. It takes a team, and the Galaxy hope to prove that on Sunday as a team of castaways put together by Arena aim to join their superstars in raising the Philip Anschutz Trophy.
It's not just a title that is on the line on Sunday, though. Some have said that a win would make this year's Galaxy team the best in MLS history.
Yes, a team that will start Mike Magee and Josh Saunders, rue the loss of Chad Barrett and turn to Chris Birchall to help wrap up a late lead could be the best in MLS history. A team that was a complete joke just three years ago could be the best in MLS history.
Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Arena.