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FIRST TO WORST, BUT WORST TO FIRST?

Byline: SCOTT FRENCH SOCCER

No question the Galaxy's playoff success last year masked major problems. L.A.'s first-to-worst run this year will lead to changes that should have been made a year ago. Watch for Frank Yallop this offseason to remake the Galaxy in his image.

The club missed the playoffs this year, the first time in its 11 seasons, and that's for the better, captain Landon Donovan says.

``It's probably good in the end that we didn't make it,'' he said after L.A.'s finale Saturday, a 5-2 romp over Western Conference champ FC Dallas. ``Because you can hide a lot of things, a la last year, when you do well at the end of the year.''

L.A. was 13-13-6 in 2005 but, thanks primarily to Donovan, captured the U.S. Open Cup and MLS titles. And, he says, ``This year we paid for it. ... Even though Frank did a good job getting guys going (after replacing Steve Sampson in early June), you can still see something's missing, and he'll right that.''

Yallop, who built San Jose into a two-time champion, will spend the offseason retooling. L.A. could use a target striker and a creative midfielder, and there's deadwood that needs to go.

``For too long,'' Donovan said, ``guys have just done their own thing ... and Frank has a way he wants to play, and it's proven it works. And you can buy into it or not, and if you're not, he's going to find someone who will.''

Wait 'til next year, and all that, but for now there's only disappointment. L.A. finished 11-15-6, last in the West.

``It's disappointing in a different way, not making the playoffs,'' said Cobi Jones, the last original Galaxian. ``There's been bigger disappointments: Making it to the final and should've won it and losing. That's very disappointing. Going out in the first round of the playoffs is very disappointing.

``When it comes down to it, everybody's the same except for one team.''

Chivas USA wants to be that team, to go from worst to first, and it's not impossible. The Galaxy's run last year demonstrated that anything can happen in MLS's postseason, and Chivas, at its best, is the league's classiest side.

But Chivas is not at its best. Ante Razov was rusty in his return Sunday from an abductor strain that had sidelined him for threeweeks; Juan Pablo ``Loco'' Garcia (abductor strain), Claudio Suarez (Achilles' tendon) and Francisco ``Paco'' Palencia (knee sprain) are ailing; and Jesse Marsch suffered a concussion in the finale.

``We've got to get healthy, that's for sure,'' Razov said. ``Jesse took a bad hit, so that's not good. Paco and Loco are banged up. It's unfortunate. We're not very deep.''

Houston, surprised by the Galaxy in last year's first round (when, as the San Jose Earthquakes, it posted the best regular-season record) has a deep team with talent in the nets (Pat Onstad), on the backline (Eddie Robinson), in midfield (Brian Mullan and Ricardo Clark), on the wing (Brad Davis) and, especially, on attack (Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Ching).

``Certainly, we need to understand how to make the game hard for them,'' Chivas coach Bob Bradley said. ``They play hard, so we have to match their effort, their intensity.''

Get past Houston, and FC Dallas likely awaits. The Hoops' attack is outstanding, but the backline can be broached. Win that, and it's D.C. United or New England, maybe Chicago, in the Nov. 12 MLS Cup at Frisco, Texas.

Chivas was 4-22-6 last year, outscored 67-31. They're 10-9-13 in '06, with a plus-three goal difference. It's been a fine campaign, but Bradley isn't ready to make an assessment.

``At the end, you know?'' he said. ``It depends if you win. Honestly. This business is about winning, and the only thing that matters, at the end of (your career), is how many championships you've been part of. That is what counts.

``The other things are nice, but they're not really what counts.''

MLS's best? Here's a vote for Cooper

A month ago, there were a good half-dozen or so candidates for Major League Soccer's MVP award, but slowly, surely, most have fallen away.

Jeff Cunningham, who reinvigorated Real Salt Lake's attack en route to the scoring title, faded when RSL failed the reach the postseason. Ante Razov, so good with Chivas USA at the start of the year, was slowed by injury down the stretch. Clint Dempsey, New England's star, made a late run and could figure in the final tally, but Andy Dorman is the Revs' engine. Jaime Moreno was clearly No. 2 in D.C.

That leaves a trio of genuine contenders:

Kenny Cooper, FC Dallas: The 21-year-old forward/midfielder, who played in Manchester United's system after graduating from high school, returned home and catapulted FC Dallas to the Western Conference title. Six of his 11 goals were game-winners, and the Hoops went 10-0-1 when he found the net, but his presence played even larger on a team loaded with big-game talent. Carlos Ruiz is the star, but Cooper is the missing piece.

Christian Gomez, D.C. United: The Argentine midfielder was the key cog for the Supporters Shield winner, among the league leaders in goals (14) and assists (11). United's late skid -- it won only one of its final six regular-season games and lost its last three -- tarnishes his appeal.

Dwayne De Rosario, Houston: The Canadian attacker should have won the award last year, when he was a finalist after leading San Jose to the league's best record. He was nearly as good in '06, scoring 11 goals for the Dynamo and causing havoc in front of opponents' nets, but the club's first year in Texas wasn't as impressive as its last in California, although the playoffs could change that.

Our vote: 1. Cooper, 2. Gomez, 3. De Rosario.

As for MLS's other top awards:

Coach of the Year: Bob Bradley stepped into a pile when he took charge of Chivas USA after a horrid inaugural campaign, and through shrewd trades, a superb draft and reinvention of the club's culture, built a potential powerhouse.

Rookie of the Year: Former UCLA star Jonathan Bornstein survived until the fourth round of this year's draft, and he's been the biggest surprise of this season. He led all rookies in minutes played and scoring (6 goals, 4 assists) while excelling as a wing-back, in midfield and up front.

Defender of the Year: Jose Burciaga Jr. was solid in the back and superb going forward for a team that failed to live up to its talent.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Another former Bruin, New England's Matt Reis, made big saves and posted a league-best 10 shutouts.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Chivas USA's Ante Razov, left, is getting healthy just in time for the playoffs. Galaxy captain Landon Donovan will miss the postseason.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Edna T. Simpson/Staff Photographer

(3) Carlos Ruiz and Kenny Cooper

Box:

Etc
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 17, 2006
Words:1168
Previous Article:L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.
Next Article:LEADING O.C. TO SUCCESS PETRIE HELPS CROSS COUNTRY TEAM MAKE ITS OWN NAME.


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