'14 Season Preview: Galaxy eye return to MLS elite

Carson, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Los Angeles Galaxy took a step back last season, although that was probably inevitable considering the club captured back-to-back MLS Cups the two previous campaigns.

Last season saw the Galaxy come up short in an effort to become the first team to win three straight league titles as Bruce Arena's side was bounced in the Western Conference semifinals by Real Salt Lake.

Now, the Galaxy enter the 2014 season with a few fresh faces in the hopes of returning to their lofty status as one of the league's elite sides.

The core of the team remains mostly intact with Arena expecting to get a full season out of Landon Donovan, while leading scorer Robbie Keane is also back for another campaign after netting 16 goals with 11 assists.

One of the top defenders in MLS, Omar Gonzalez, will anchor the back line, with midfield stalwarts Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas providing a steady presence.

So after failing to return to MLS Cup last season, what has Arena done to improve his side's chances?

For starters, he has supersized his forward line with the additions of Samuel and Rob Friend, who figure to not only provide depth but also strength up top.

The 6-foot-1 Samuel joins Los Angeles from Brazilian side Fluminense on a season-long loan, while veteran forward Friend stands 6-foot-5 and arrives from German club 1860 Munich.

Arena acknowledged that both are still finding their way into the team, but that their inclusion gives him more options than in seasons past.

"They need some time, they're still in transition with this team," Arena said of Samuel and Friend. "Last year in the positions they're playing we had less talented and less experienced players. I think that adds up to be a real plus for us."

Both players will be expected to take some of the pressure off of Keane and Donovan, who shouldered much of the scoring load last season with a combined 26 goals.

The next highest scorer was Mike Magee, who netted six goals in 10 games before being traded to the Chicago Fire for Robbie Rogers in midseason.

Samuel and Friend could also allow Arena to alter his attack a bit by holding up the ball to create more space for Keane and Donovan.

The United States international could also drop into midfield, which he is prepared to do, and at this point he seems ready welcome any change if it is for the better of the team.

"I can play wherever I'm needed. But it would be nice to have some other guys take some pressure off," Donovan said of a potential move into the midfield. "Those guys seem eager and hungry to make an impact. I think when you look at some of the qualities we have on our team you would expect that I would play at midfield to some extent. But if there's times in the year I play forward that's fine too."

Another player who is in the mix up top is 22-year-old Gyasi Zardes, who enjoyed a standout rookie campaign last term with four goals and four assists in 27 appearances.

At the back the Galaxy will be replacing goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, most likely with Jaime Penedo, who started 11 games for the club and who should hold off a challenge from both Brian Rowe and Brian Perk for the first-choice job.

Veteran defender Sean Franklin also left the Galaxy this offseason after holding down a regular place in the team for much of the past six seasons.

2013 IN REVIEW: The Galaxy managed to finish third in the Western Conference last year after winning 15 games in the regular season, the club's lowest win total since 2009. Los Angeles struggled in the months of May and June with just three wins in a 10-game span, but appeared to have momentum going into the postseason with a four-match unbeaten streak. However, after winning the first leg 1-0 against Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles lost in overtime to a Chris Schuler goal in the 102nd minute in the return match, ending the Galaxy's quest for a third successive title.

ADDITIONS: Baggio Husidic (M), Samuel (F), Rob Friend (F), Stefan Ishizaki (M).

LOSSES: Colin Clark (M), Laurent Courtois (M), Sean Franklin (D), Carlo Cudicini (GK), Pablo Mastroeni (M), Jose Villarreal (F), Hector Jimenez (M).

OUTLOOK: There is no reason to think that the Galaxy won't be back to challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference again this season. Donovan will be playing from the start of the year, unlike last term while on a self-imposed sabbatical, and Arena has brought in reinforcements up top to give the club an added dimension. Zardes has the chance to bolster the attack as well in his second MLS campaign, so scoring goals shouldn't be a problem. Penedo figures to be a competent replacement for Cudicini in goal, and Gonzalez leads a defense that gave up fewer goals than all but two teams last season. This is definitely a team that will expect to be back at MLS Cup this season, and will be disappointed with anything less.