Contending without Beckham

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! SportsOctober 16, 2007

CARSON, Calif. – The lyrics of McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" blared out of the sound system in the Los Angeles Galaxy's dressing room Saturday night following their victory over Toronto FC.

It was not clear whether the choice of song was mere coincidence or a signal of intent, but the fact remains that the Galaxy's unlikely charge towards a possible MLS playoff berth is starting to resemble a juggernaut.

What a difference a few weeks, and a few wins, can make. Embarrassed silence has been replaced with laughter, and the hint of a swagger has crept into the step of players whose personalities were previously shackled by the stigma of repeated defeat.

"For us to be talking about the playoffs now is surprising," L.A. coach Frank Yallop admitted. "But I said all along we were not that bad. Winning breeds confidence and the guys are believing in themselves."

Through the middle of summer, the Galaxy found the heat from the giant spotlight trained on Southern California to monitor David Beckham's arrival to be too much for them. As a unit, L.A. wilted.

Accusations in the British press that Beckham had joined an outfit that possessed no more quality than a "pub team" were cruel, but by stumbling through a dismal six-game losing streak, coach Frank Yallop's players unintentionally provided their detractors with extra ammunition.

A long and grueling road trip did nothing to help matters, nor did the constant debate as to the where, when and wisdom of Beckham's scheduled return from an ankle injury. When he did eventually get back, it was not long before disaster struck, with a strained knee ligament on August 29 seeming to bring down the curtain on a forgettable campaign for both the England midfielder and his new team.

Out of the glare for the first time, the Galaxy did not respond immediately, taking just four points from their next five games. Then, suddenly, it all changed. Fortune, absent for so long, suddenly breezed back into the camp.

Players stepped up. Little defender Mike Randolph justified his equally diminutive salary several times over with some spirited displays. Captain Landon Donovan found new life, orchestrating meaningful attacking moves that allowed Edson Buddle and Gavin Glinton to rediscover their scoring touch. Yallop, a good and decent man, remembered how to smile and shed a few frown lines.

Five straight victories have put the Galaxy at 33 points, just four behind seventh-place Chicago and eighth-place Kansas City. Two more wins – at home against the New York Red Bulls on Thursday and at the Chicago Fire three days later in MLS' regular-season finale – would complete perhaps the most remarkable comeback in league history.

Yet for all of L.A.'s fine efforts, its challenge now is mental as well as mathematical.

For the past month, the Galaxy have had nothing to lose. Now, a level of expectation has returned and the spotlight is cranking into action once more, especially with Beckham edging closer to full fitness. If Yallop's players are unable to combat that experience with steelier nerve than earlier in the season, their postseason dreams will evaporate quickly.

The biggest thing working in L.A.'s favor is that it cannot be knocked out by factors beyond its control, but the Galaxy's character will be tested severely this week. If they can beat New York and set up the perfect season-ending showdown against Chicago, then the pressure will be greater than many of the players have ever faced.

They must try to maintain the mental approach of having nothing to lose, even when a playoff berth is at stake.

"It is in our hands and you can't ask for more," Donovan said. "If you have offered me this situation five weeks ago, I would have called you crazy.

"We are proud of it but it doesn't mean anything yet. We have still got our backs to the wall and we need to keep it like that."

Even if there is no dream ending for L.A., it will at least have showed the potential to be a competitive MLS team. The Galaxy will have set things up nicely for Beckham's first full season next year.

"What we have done shuts a few people up who had a dig at us," Yallop said. "It is nice to at least have this chance."