Remember when 2011 was supposed to be the swan song for the LA Galaxy ? When David Beckham was going to ride off into the sunset and the pieces of Bruce Arena's MLS dynasty were going to begin falling apart?
Remember when 2012 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Major League Soccer's most high-profile club? If you can't remember that time, it's probably because the notion seemed to disappear before the champagne had even dried at the Home Depot Center after their MLS Cup-winning celebration.
More: MLS | LA Galaxy
Not only didn't the defending MLS champions fall apart this past off-season, they managed to get even stronger. Now they stand poised to field one of the strongest teams in league history. Only the torn ACL suffered by Omar Gonzalez on the first day of a training stint with German side FC Nuremberg has put a damper on what was an otherwise dream off-season for the Galaxy.
Where to begin? The Galaxy re-signed thought-to-be wantaway star David Beckham , brought back Juninho and Leonardo, added Marcelo Sarvas, re-signed Sean Franklin and then scored one of the signings of the season by bringing back Edson Buddle after he spent a year in Germany.
The flurry of moves led to plenty of head-scratching from observers who couldn't believe the Galaxy could manage to make a loaded team even stronger without losing a single key player. The team did part ways with highly-regarded goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts , but he had already lost his starting job to Josh Saunders, and his departure helped pay for the roster revamping that has the Galaxy looking unstoppable.
Offensively, the Galaxy boast an attacking quartet as good as MLS has ever seen. Buddle, Robbie Keane, Beckham and Landon Donovan will be able to overwhelm opposing defenses, though it will be interesting to see what sort of depth behind the big four will remain once the club has made its final roster moves to accommodate so much talent. Youngsters like Paolo Cardozo and Michael Stephens will be needed to pick up the slack.
While the headliners will get plenty of the attention, bringing back Juninho could wind up being the most important move the Galaxy made this winter. His tenacity and work rate in central midfield is fundamental to the smooth connection between the Galaxy's defense and attack. The addition of Sarvas, who replaces Chris Birchall, should help give Juninho some cover and support in the Galaxy engine room.
The biggest question heading into 2012 is how the Galaxy will cope with the absence of Gonzalez, who is expected to be out at least until September. Gonzalez was the best defender in the league in 2011 and the key to the Galaxy's league-best defense.
Los Angeles still has some other strong defenders in the back, with standout fullbacks Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin, as well as A.J. DeLaGarza, who played well enough to earn a national team call-up.
That threesome should help pick up the slack for Gonzalez's absence, but the fact remains: The Galaxy won't be able to make up for the dominant aerial presence Gonzalez provided, which could leave LA vulnerable on set pieces. Rookie Tommy Meyer, Brazil's Leonardo and veteran addition Andrew Boyens are contenders to fill the vacancy. While all three boast good size, none would be considered imposing in the penalty area, leaving the league's strongest team with at least one identifiable weakness.
If there is another question mark, it's in goal, where Josh Saunders has the starting job to himself after unseating Ricketts last season. Saunders was key to the Galaxy's title run in 2011, but will face the pressure of being the unquestioned No. 1 (for the first time) heading into an MLS season. If he can build on his strong 2011 form, the Galaxy defense should be able to cope until Gonzalez returns.
With all the talent he could ask for, Arena will have the task of balancing minutes of his older players (like Beckham and Keane), while bringing along young talents (like Stephens and Cardozo) to help cope with a congested fixture list. Arena did this masterfully in 2011, and there's little reason to think he cannot do it again.
The rebuilding job the Galaxy were expected to endure before 2012 is now a year away, meaning Arena and LA will have another season to dominate. All the pieces are in place for a historic season.
2012 LOS ANGELES GALAXY TEAM OUTLOOK TOP PLAYERS: Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Todd Dunivant
KEY ADDITIONS: Edson Buddle, Marcelo Sarvas, Tommy Meyer, Andrew Boyens, Pat Noonan
KEY LOSSES: Donovan Ricketts, Chris Birchall, Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk
MUST HAVE A BIG YEAR: Josh Saunders. There's every reason to think he can handle the No. 1 job for a full season, but if for some reason he falters, the Galaxy could be very vulnerable.
BREAKOUT PLAYER TO WATCH: Michael Stephens. The young midfielder impressed with the US Under-23 national team and is poised to take on a bigger role with the Galaxy in 2012.
BIGGEST CONCERN: Who will fill in for Gonzalez? Rookie Tommy Meyer has impressed enough in pre-season to be in the conversation, but veteran Andrew Boyens could earn the nod if Meyer is deemed too inexperienced to rely upon early. Leonardo is still recovering from his own knee surgery from 2011, but if he gets healthy early in the season, the center back spot alongside A.J. DeLaGarza could be his.
OUTLOOK: The Galaxy boast the strongest team in MLS by a wide margin. Only some major injuries could keep this Galaxy team from being a top title contender. If Omar Gonzalez returns in the fall and can come close to his all-star form, the Galaxy will be too tough to beat come playoff time. The real question is just how much silverware can this group win. Currently alive in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Galaxy could become the first MLS team to lift that trophy.