The LA Galaxy opened the 2015 season with a comfortable home victory against the Chicago Fire, with second-half goals from Jose Villarreal and Robbie Keane. While it's dangerous to read too much in just ninety minutes of soccer, after the long off-season, we finally have a hint of what's to come. Let's look at both the positives and the negatives from this match.
There's no question that three points at home is the biggest positive from this match, but the shutout is also a great thing for the team this early in the season. The team defense looked very solid in this match, giving up very few clear chances. Perhaps the most dangerous play on the night was a poorly executed back-pass from Omar Gonzalez to Brian Rowe that Fire forward Quincy Amerikwa almost got to. This in spite of the fact that likely starters AJ DeLaGarza, Jaime Penedo, and Baggio Husidic all started the match on the bench due to fitness and injury concerns. With that in mind, sturdy defense should be a staple for this LA team moving forward this year.
One of the reasons for that strong defensive outing was the ability to control the ball in the midfield. LA had a great possession advantage throughout the match and were able to force Chicago into taking speculative shots from outside the penalty area. They did a great job of playing the ball out of the back and cycling it around quickly in order to keep Chicago chasing. LA players, as a unit, seemed to be on the same page, finding space off the ball to help relieve pressure. This was great to see, because one of the biggest questions coming into this match is how LA would deal with the loss of Landon Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas. Kenny Walker and Jose Villarreal stepped in and did a good job for the most part.
Both the strong defense and possession bring up something that we probably don't talk about enough. LA is a very well-coached team. All the players clearly know what is expected of them. While much of the off-season speculation revolved around what players would be brought in to replace Donovan and Sarvas, perhaps the answer is really the same as when similar questions arose relating to David Beckham's departure: less skilled players can step in and take up the slack as long as the coaching staff do a great job preparing them. That's not to say that there won't be any problems moving forward, but fans should take some consolation in the ability of Bruce Arena and his staff to get the most out of the guys they have.
Finally, LA fans have got to be excited about the play of Villarreal, Gyasi Zardes, and Stefan Ishizaki. Villarreal showed signs of maturity and managed to take a couple of decent shots, one of which was the clinical finish on the first goal. If he can continue to be calm in front of the goal, LA will have another scoring threat to draw attention from Zardes & Keane.
Speaking of Zardes, he looks to have continued to improve. His decision-making and vision is vastly superior to where it was this time last year. If he can continue at this rate, we may have to worry about losing him on international dates on a more regular basis.
Ishizaki was dangerous all night, making Fire defender Joevin Jones look over-matched and under-prepared. He beat guys on the dribble, sent in dangerous crosses, and stretched the Chicago defense. I was critical of his play last year and still have some issues (which I'll go into below), but there is no question that he is looking more and more comfortable in MLS, and his attacking play brings something to the table that LA doesn't really have other players to provide.
While this match was better than what we saw at the beginning of 2014, there are still some concerns. To begin with, Chicago did not look good in this match, so it's tough to tell how much of a test this was. Shaun Maloney and Kennedy Igboananike, their big off-season acquisitions, were largely invisible. Their attack was anemic, and their defense looked over-matched. This is not so much a negative for the Galaxy as a note of caution.
The biggest concern for LA going forward was the decision-making in the final third and the finishing. Last year, the Galaxy failed to win the Supporters' Shield in spite of holding a +32 goal differential (17 goals better than Shield winners, Seattle). This was largely because at times, in spite of dominating matches in terms of possession and shooting, they did a poor job converting their chances. We saw this last night in spades. Villarreal squandered the best chance of the first half by skying an open shot over the crossbar. Zardes was unable to connect with an Ishizaki cross while open on the far post two yards in front of the goal.
Perhaps more concerning than the missed shots was the poor decision-making in the final third. Villarreal showed his immaturity on a number of occasions, dribbling into a crowd with his head down before losing the ball. However, Ishizaki was the biggest offender here. He made a number of poor decisions and has a tendency to shoot when he should be passing. The two most egregious were his attempted bicycle kick from the top of the penalty box when he could have easily settled the ball to the feet of Keane for a much higher percentage shot, and his shot from the right when he had Keane wide open in front of the goal. The latter led Keane to kick the goalpost in frustration.
So what does this all mean moving forward?
It's hard to tell at this point, but as a fan, I'm cautiously optimistic that the team can play well enough before the arrival of Steven Gerrard to keep themselves near the top of the standings. I guess we'll know more after next week's match in Portland.