In pre-season training and with an eye to their 2008 MLS opener in late March, a new-look LA Galaxy has a decidedly high-class and cosmopolitan sensibility about it.
The Galaxy recently signed former Nigeria and Newcastle defender Celestine Babayaro to slip in alongside ex-Liverpool and Portugal man Abel Xavier in defence and even brought perennial goal machine and prodigal son Carlos Ruiz back into the fold.
New coach Ruud Gullit, himself a huge name in the world game
with Premiership coaching credentials, is charged with the task of
assembling a super-team under the heavy weight of expected success.
The new signings join up with the two highest-paid players in MLS history in USA captain Landon Donovan and league figurehead David Beckham as the Galaxy begin to have more than just a nominal connection to Real Madrid's failed Galactico experiment.
Having missed the post-season play-offs the last two years running, the twice Major League Soccer champions (2002 and 2005) were indeed in need of a shake-up. But Donovan, fresh from a 2-2 draw with Mexico mid-week for the States, has his concerns regarding the influx of big names.
"Things needed to change and we needed some new blood," Donovan told FIFA.com ahead of MLS' 13th season. "Any time you go two years without making the play-offs you have to make some changes.
"If these new guys can help us get back to winning ways,
then that will be great," added the 25-year-old and all-time
leading scorer for the US. "But just because they are names
and have reputations doesn't mean they are going to change
things for the better automatically."
Gullit, the Dutch former AC Milan star and twice FIFA World Player of the Year, will be the man responsible for gathering the undoubted talented individuals at the southern Californian club and making an actual team out of them.
The coiner of the term 'sexy football,' is every inch as
big a personality as his players. As such, the Galaxy locker-room
now resembles, in an admittedly scaled-down form, not only a
bloated Real Madrid at the start of the century, but more
relevantly, the New York Cosmos of 30 years ago.
In the long-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL), New York City, not LA, was the prime destination for some of the world's biggest players. And although Beckham, a former Galactico at Real Madrid, may well be a decided coup for the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Cosmos once had Pele, Johan Neeskens, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia all playing together. Fans followed en masse, with the 78-000-capacity Meadowlands regularly bursting at its seams.
Although the glitzy Cosmos dream-team inspired a new interest in
football in the States, one that eventually led to the US hosting a
FIFA World Cup™ and establishing MLS in 1996, it created a lack of
balance in the burgeoning NASL. Still referred to by some as the
greatest team in football history, the Cosmos created an
environment in which other teams could not compete and forced the
league to fold under its own weight.
Major League Soccer - which officially owns all players contracts - has been plenty careful to avoid the mistakes that led to the rise of the Cosmos and the demise of the NASL. But the parallels between the New York all-stars of yore and the LA Galaxy of today are becoming more and more pronounced.
Flashy club president and former US defender Alexi Lalas is aware of the test facing his side both on and off the pitch. "They're going to work their butts off," he said about the players at training camp, before claiming Gullit is the man to deal with the big egos and big salaries in the dressing room.
Beckham, whose celebrity in the States has far exceeded his status as a professional athlete, is saying all the right things. "Our goal this year is clear: to win something," he told reporters gathered at the Home Depot Center. "We have to get it right from the first game and carry it on all the way through the season."
Donovan, the heir to Claudio Reyna as national team captain and arguably the USA's best-ever player, sees a certain danger in the Galaxy's unchecked expansion.
"They may be big names brought in but they have to come to work and contribute," the California native concluded by way of warning. "They have to make sure they're here for the right reasons."
All will be known soon enough, as MLS action gets rolling in late March.