- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

CARSON, Calif. (AP) - Landon Donovan is gone, this time apparently for good. Steven Gerrard is on his way, but won’t arrive for four months.

When the LA Galaxy begin defense of their third MLS Cup title in four seasons Friday night, that gap between their former and future scoring stars is just one challenge in a season full of obstacles.

A team with less experience in such high-stakes endeavors would be understandably worried. The star-studded Galaxy have done it all before, and they’ve emerged with more trophies and rings than any franchise in MLS history.

“With all due respect to Landon, I think everyone has moved on,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “Everyone thanks him for his service and what he’s done for our club and country, but we can’t think about him every day. We’ve got to worry about the guys who are here and who can make an impact on this team. He has missed stretches of games, and we’ve played without him before. We’ve done absolutely fine without him.”

The Galaxy host the Chicago Fire at StubHub Center as MLS kicks off its 20th season after narrowly averting a labor stoppage.

Donovan had been a fixture in the Galaxy’s lineup for most of the previous 11 years, becoming the top scorer in MLS history and the most accomplished American soccer player. Yet when he announced his early retirement last year, the Galaxy already were at work filling his designated player spot with Gerrard, the Liverpool star who will join the club in July.

That’s how things are done by the five-time MLS champions, who attract top talent with big salaries, a popular city and a winning tradition. Donovan and David Beckham blazed the trail followed by current MLS MVP Robbie Keane and Gerrard, along with a gifted core of supporting players.

The resulting attention and scrutiny are just part of the job, and the Galaxy embrace it.

“I remember when I first came into the league, we had sellout crowds because of David, and people wanted to beat us because of David,” said Gonzalez, a U.S. national team regular and one of MLS’ top defenders. “People want to beat us because we spend money on players, but we’re winning championships, too. Everyone is marking us on their calendar for the day they’ve got to show up. … It makes our season harder than any other team has it, because no game is easy for us. We’ve got to work that much harder.”

Aside from Donovan’s departure, the Galaxy’s roster looks much the same. Marcelo Sarvas, their fourth-leading goal-scorer last season, was traded to Colorado, and they re-signed former LA striker Edson Buddle for an audition.

But Galaxy coach Bruce Arena has constructed a solid foundation around the best player in MLS last year. Keane has won the MLS Cup in all but one of his four seasons stateside, and the Irish captain appears primed for another high-scoring year up front.

Until Gerrard’s arrival, Arena is likely to try several strategies to fill the hole left by Donovan, who accounted for a third of LA’s scoring last season.

Teenager Bradford Jamieson IV probably will get a shot, and forward Gyasi Zardes could build off his recent U.S. national team success by moving back to the spot at times. Stefan Ishizaki, Baggio Husidic and Juninho all must raise their offensive games to replicate Donovan’s activity and service.

“We have plenty of options,” Arena said. “You lose players each and every year, and this year our loss is Landon. We’ve had other losses in the past, and you’ve got to move on.”

Away from StubHub Center, the Galaxy know how to handle the potential distractions of all the hoopla surrounding a championship defense.

A few weeks after their season finally ended in December, the Galaxy made their latest White House visit and did a preseason tour of Europe with games in Sweden and Ireland. But aside from a banner unveiling at Friday’s home opener, the Galaxy decided to get all of their championship festivities finished well before the season.

At an intimate team dinner in downtown Los Angeles this week, the Galaxy received their championship rings - delivered on silver platters, no less.

“We’re used to getting them on the field before a game, so it was good to get this over with,” defender A.J. De La Garza said. “We can just clear our heads now, because 2014 is over and we’re moving forward.”

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