There comes a time in the life of every professional soccer team, be it in the depths of obscurity or in the height of success, when the question must be asked of just who, exactly, that team is.
The view is that a team is the embodiment of their style of play. Their collective identity is one that is wholly reflected by their product on the field. For the Galaxy, that identity has been the soccer analog of slick Hollywood glitz and glam. Tiki-Taco, as it has been dubbed, and its flowing, pass and move brilliance which allowed for 26-pass sequences leading to beautiful goals, personified the 2014 Galaxy as they made the push for their fifth MLS Cup Championship.
If you click on that second link (which you really should), you'll see that a significant number of players were involved in the sequence. You'll also notice that instead of Robbie Keane playing up top with Gyasi Zardes, it's Alan Gordon connecting his share of the dots.
But most importantly, you'll notice the presence of the Galaxy's midfield players and their movement as they connect passes. Watch Landon Donovan as he slides from the left side of the pitch to the middle, and back and forth again. Watch Marcelo Sarvas roam the center of the park as he hunts down the ball and finds the next pass. At the same time, watch Juninho as he rotates around Sarvas's axis, providing a release valve at all times. As the Galaxy head into the final part of that sequence, it's Juninho at the top of the attacking third, about 35 yards from goal, finding an on-rushing Marcelo Sarvas, who plays it forward to Donovan. Of course, it goes without saying that Donovan is a magician in the final third. It's easy to get caught up in his individual brilliance as he slips the ball into the box for Gordon, gets it back, and then sends an equally gorgeous ball back through to DeLaGarza as he makes a run in from the right.
But instead-and I know it's hard to pull yourself away-watch the movement of Baggio Husidic. From the 1:00 mark in that video on, he makes what is essentially a straight-line run through the center of the D.C. United defense and ends up pulling away from his defender at the perfect time, creating space for DeLaGarza to find him, and then finishes.
Money Bags Baggio, as he turns out to be on that play, does what he does best, and what he's done this season as well. He turns up in space around the 18. Head over to Sean Steffen's article, which examines the problems with current positional roles in the LA Galaxy midfield, and you'll see that Money Bags, is THE guy, the ONLY guy who presents an attacking threat from the center of midfield.
Why? Why, oh, why has the well run dry?
It's simple enough, really: Baggio can't do it alone. He needs playmakers around him in order to be at his most effective and to supplement his style of play.
Last season, these playmakers came in the form of the pairing of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho, but also Landon Donovan. The thing about the Los Angeles Galaxy is that they have been a whole that is more than the sum of its parts for so, so long. Don't get me wrong, they've had some very, very impressive parts from which to build that whole, but a great team is always better than its individuals, no matter who they are.
The reason for that (well maybe not the whole reason, but at least a significant part of that reason) is Landon Donovan. From the time he announced his retirement in August of last year, he went on an absolute tear with the Galaxy and was the magical, radioactive-spider-bite glue that took them from a good team to one that was destined to win its fifth championship and third in four years. Also since that time, there have been dozens of articles published regarding how the Galaxy were supposed to replace him, if there was such a way.
The overwhelming consensus has been that there was no way in Hell that a team could ever replace the best American to ever lace up a pair of boots. The team wasn't going to just be able to plug different players in and expect anything near the same quality of product that they were manufacturing up through 2014.
Unfortunately for the club and for fans of attractive, captivating, coherent football, the main theme in 2015 has been trying to fit new pieces into a new system with a similar success rate of trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Last season's midfield play was compelling, to say the least. The play of Landon Donovan was compelling, and made for an excellent story line as he rode off into the sunset on the back of yet another MLS Cup title. But at the end of the day, he was only part of a whole. The other parts played equally important roles in the team's success, and the resulting style of play was a reflection of a system that fit the players in the squad.
In fewer words, everyone had a role, and everyone had the right role. Each player knew his role, knew the roles of the other players, and understood how they all fit together. This was exemplified by their ability to hold meaningful possession better than any other team in the league, completing 481.7 passes per game.
The difference this year is in those roles, or more precisely the lack thereof. Landon is gone, Marcelo is gone, and that means that other guys have to step in. But the fact is, they aren't the same players. Juninho and Baggio aren't going to have the same kind of partnership that Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas had. Stefan Ishizaki isn't suddenly going to become the dynamic, game changing force of nature that Landon was, and Mika Vayrynen is very clearly still finding his feet. In fact, if you pop back over to Sean's article, you'll notice that Mika and Juninho are essentially trying to play the same role and doing nothing but cancelling out the effectiveness of each other. Jose Villarreal has the potential to be an incredible attacking midfield option on the left wing, but he needs time to become comfortable and consistent as a full-time starter. A month into the season, he's shown some of that promising 2013 form, but turning down a US-U23 call up to solidify his role with the Galaxy means that he knows there's still work to do before the finished product is on display.
One of the most interesting role changes from 2014 to 2015 has been that of Baggio Husidic. Baggio is a very capable player, and one that isn't given enough credit by just about anyone. A big reason for that is the role he played last season. He was a member of the supporting cast. This year, Bruce Arena has pushed him into the limelight, forcing him to take on much more responsibility for the Galaxy attack.
His role change is an example of what the entire team is going through right now: a transitional period. Baggio is more than capable of being that player who can create chances in the final third, but he'll need time to grow into his starring role, and he'll need time for other players to grow around him. We're only one month into the season, so it's completely reasonable for the Galaxy to still be figuring out how to pick up the slack of the big players who aren't at the club anymore. But it's also reasonable for fans to be worried by the large drop off in form that the team has displayed.
It's important to remember just how high the level is at which people are used to seeing the Galaxy play. It's rare that a team knows how to play its game that well, so when things change, it's easy to see, and we're seeing it now.
The Galaxy are in a tough spot right now because the only thing that can right the ship is chemistry, and chemistry takes time. Time is something you have if you're a Los Angeles fan, especially since Bruce Arena's teams never really seem to pick up steam until the Summer. Until then, the right questions have to be asked, and those questions involve understanding what this transitional period is all about. It's not a question of who the next Marcelo will be, or who is going to fill the shoes of Landon Donovan, but rather when the new Baggio Husidic will evolve out of 2014's version and how long will it take before Mika Vayrynen and Juninho develop complementary roles.
Have faith! Bruce Arena isn't a miracle worker, and that's why we've seen the things we've seen this season, but he's had a ridiculous amount of success as a coach and he'll get this team together. Bruce has been around this league for a long time and he knows what transition looks like.
The talent on the field is there, the coaching talent is there, the chemistry will come, and the Galaxy will discover an identity for themselves.