On Saturday evening, the Los Angeles Galaxy faced a tough challenge, as the Houston Dynamo came to town. The Dynamo faced a turbulent off-season, with long-time coach Dominic Kinnear jumping ship and the team being moved into the Western Conference, which is widely perceived to be much more competitive than the East.
New Dynamo coach Owen Coyle clearly had his team ready to go toe-to-toe with the reigning champions. His players implemented a high press with a lot of very physical play. The result was an ugly, choppy match that was a bit painful to sit through. Nonetheless... here are some take-aways:
First lets look at the positives aspects of the Galaxy's 1-1 home draw:
- High energy start: LA came into the match with a bang. Robbie Keane scored in the third minute after a fifty-five yard run through the midfield. Even before that, though, the team had looked good attacking down the left side, with some nice combination play allowing Rogers to put in a dangerous cross. It was nice to the team come out ready to play.
- Solid central defending: One of the nicest surprises of this young season has been the consistent play of Leonardo in the central defense. He has always been a physically gifted player, but has been prone to mental lapses that gifted opponents goals on too many occasions. Saturday's game was the third on the trot in which Leo looked solid. If he continues this trend, he and Omar Gonzalez could become the best center back tandem in the league.
- Omar Gonzalez in the attack: Speaking of Gonzalez, he has added a new dimension to his game. His distribution out of the back this season has been fun to watch. His touch and vision on long passes has lead to a number of goals. In this match, he added a number of runs with the ball that created defensive mismatches for Houston. One of the best things about these runs is that he was smart in choosing when to make them. He chose his spots wisely, when he knew he had cover in the back. Yes, one of his runs resulted in Juninho making a tactical foul leading to a yellow card, but the cover was there. Hopefully Gonzalez can continue to get forward judiciously and add another weapon to the Galaxy offense.
- Possession: Over the past three years, the Galaxy have become recognized throughout the league as an excellent possession team. This game was no exception, as LA controlled 65% of the possession, including having more than twice as many passes in the attacking third than Houston. One of the questions coming into the season was whether or not LA would be able to maintain possession without Donovan and Sarvas in the line-up. That seems to have been answered in the first three matches of the season.
- Scoring Opportunities: Despite the unfavorable result, LA produced a number of scoring opportunities that could have resulted in a second goal, especially in the final thirty minutes. LA out-shot their opponents 9-6, and forced Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric into a number of punches and saves. Both Robbie Keane and newcomer Mika Vayrynen had great opportunities to put the home side in the lead in the final half-hour.
Despite the fact that the result of this weeks match is the same as last weeks match against the Portland Timbers, I think there is a lot more reason for concern.
- Dropping points at home: While the draw last week in Portland was a positive result, there is no way to spin this outcome. The Galaxy need to win matches at home. Especially when they control possession and create chances like they did against Houston. This is the type of result that cost LA the Supporters Shield in 2014, and the team needs to get the full three points out of these matches this season or they will suffer the same fate.
- Robbie Rogers' defensive lapses: For the second week in a row, Robbie Rogers had a mental mistake that cost the team a result. I don't want to pick on Rogers too much, as I would say his net impact on the match was quite positive. However, he needs to eliminate these mental errors. They are the types of plays that come back to haunt defenders. Hopefully this is just a sophomore slump for Rogers. His conversions from winger to outside back has been one of the great player development successes for LA over the last couple of years, and he needs to continue his growth. Hopefully Leonardo will sit down and explain how he's managed to eliminate those mental lapses from his game.
- Defending set pieces: Once again, LA conceded a goal on a set piece. As pointed out above, Robbie Rogers lost his mark on the play, allowing Nathan Sturgis to score a tap-in. However, Omar Gonzalez did a poor job defending David Horst, and allowing him to knock down the ball for the assist. In the post-match interview, Gonzalez noted that the team had spent a lot of time in practice this last week working on defending set pieces. It looks like they need to either double down next week, or try a new approach. With the size of players that the team has, their is simply no excuse for giving up these types of goals.
- Poor decision-making in the midfield: While LA were able to maintain possession and create a few chances in the match, there is plenty of room for improvement in midfield play. That's not to say that things were all bad. Jose Villarreal made a very smart pass to Robbie Keane setting up the goal. In addition, Arena mentioned in his post-match interview that the LA defense did a poor job getting the ball to the midfield in good positions. However, as Houston settled back into a defensive shell, too often the LA midfield was slow on the ball and missed open teammates because they were late with the pass. There were multiple situations where players chose to dribble or take an extra touch when a couple of one-touch passes would have opened up space. Baggio Husidic, Stefan Ishizaki, and Villarreal were all guilty of this at several points during the match. Vayrynen was better when he subbed in for Husidic in the 69th minute, but the over-all result was that LA failed to make the dangerous pass leading to a shot. This is certainly the area where the team most misses Landon Donovan. Donovan was so quick to move the ball and relieve pressure that it when other guys occasionally took too much time on the ball, the defense was still shifting. If you have a chance to go back and watch the passing sequences in the first couple minutes of the match, you can see how effective the attack was when the team moved the ball quickly. Hopefully this is something that Arena will will work on in practice over the next few weeks, but this may be an ongoing issue.
- Poor goalkeeping: I mentioned last week that the Galaxy goalkeeping needed to improve. This week, while once again there were no errors resulting in a goal, the problem seems to be persistent. Jaime Penedo got the start over Brian Rowe, but there was little difference in the quality of play. One of the biggest issues seems to be communication between the goalkeeper and the back line. There were a number of iffy moments in this match, and Penedo never looked comfortably in control of his area. This will come back to haunt the team unless it is addressed.
- Weak play from Edson Buddle: With five minutes left to play, Arena brought in an attacking player and going to three men in the back. He was definitely going for the win at home, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, the player that he brought in (Edson Buddle) looked rusty and uncomfortable. Buddle's strengths in the past have always been his hold-up play, his willingness to take a shot, and his ability to put the ball on frame. None of this was apparent in his brief time on the pitch. In his post-match comments, Arena pointed out that his striker really didn't get good service, which is a fair point, and can explain the lack of shots. However, Buddle's hold-up play was quite poor, which is something to be concerned about. On the few occasions when he got the ball at his feet, he was unable to hold off the defender and find an open teammate. It's not fair to draw further conclusions from so little time on the pitch, but he certainly did little to help the team in this match.