The early season can be a tightrope of sorts for managers. On one hand, the games matter just as much as any in the season, but on the other hand, the team is still gelling. Guys are still battling for positions. Some managers have had more success than others. One manager who has not been so successful in this of late is Bruce Arena. But then again, that all depends on how you define success on the tightrope.
Five games into the 2015 season, having only managed a single win, the LA Galaxy find themselves in a familiar early season slump and Galaxy players and coach faced a slew of questions at their first training session back after being outclassed by Vancouver.
"It's a mentality thing," Alan Gordon stated. "We just got to be better."
This is something that was echoed by veteran defender Todd Dunivant: "Sometimes on the road you have to absorb that pressure and get over the fact that you're not going to dominate every game. And that's certainly our mentality. We want to play the way we play at home every game, but sometimes we're going to have to absorb pressure and win ugly... and that's a mentality thing and we have to get back to that."
"I think we're probably lacking a little bit of that nastiness," said Dan Gargan in an attempt to pinpoint the type of mentality that the team is lacking and A.J. DeLaGarza used the same term, explaining he thought they were playing a bit soft and needed to go in harder for balls.
There was also a tremendous sense of urgency from the players when it came to the points being dropped.
"You always need points because that's the way this league is," Gargan explained.
"Yeah, I'm a little worried about it," Juninho told us.
"We can't wait till the second half of the year to turn things on," said A.J. DeLaGarza . "We're losing points now, and we look at least year, if we didn't give up so many goals late in games, we could have ran away with the supporters shield."
From everything the players are saying, and perhaps more importantly, the way in which they saying are them, it's quite clear that, for all the the slow starts over the past couple of years for the Galaxy, the players very much do care about the beginning of the season. They want to win these games and there is very much an urgency from them to turn things around.
The vibe from Bruce Arena, on the other hand, was slightly different. When I asked why he felt the past couple of years the team has started so slow, he simply answered, "Don't know," before continuing "I'm not really worried about it to be honest with you."
When asked about what he wanted to see from the team from the Seattle game, his simple reply was, "a win." When pressed further about whether there was anything beyond that, specifically whether he wanted to see form improving, he answered rather casually, "I'm sure at some point it will."
It's a stark contrast from the urgency heard from the players. Where Juninho is worried, Bruce is not, and perhaps this is a telling contrast. Bruce is a competitor and wants the points. There is no denying that, however, Bruce's job is to manage this team over the course of an entire season, and, from his quotes on the day at least, it isn't a stretch to surmise that early in the season, building and experimenting might be of equal priority to winning.
An example would be his subbing in of Edson Buddle in the Vancouver game rather than Alan Gordon who's seen more minutes. Bruce explained that sub was about getting Edson some minutes on the field. Obviously Edson is a great player and putting him out there over Gordon is by no means a white flag (in fact, Buddle played quite well) but you have to ask yourself if that's the sub Bruce makes in a must-win game. By subbing in Buddle, Bruce was deciding to take the long approach, just as he did when he sat Jose Villarreal for precautionary reasons relating to a minor hamstring injury. Bruce didn't want him playing on the turf.
Of course, ideally these goals are not at odds, but things are not always ideal and it can be argued that Bruce's early season tinkering has made it harder for the Galaxy to win games in the short term, although the idea certainly seems to be that it will help the team in the long run.
"At the beginning of the year, you mix the lineups up," Bruce explained after I asked who his central midfield tandem is if everyone is healthy. "We don't have any set lineups at this point."
According to Juninho, however, this has made it harder for him. "I try to do the best for myself, but sometimes it's not easy when you play with a different guy that you don't know as much."
Dan Gargan also talked about this. "We haven't put out a backline that's the same since the beginning of the season. We haven't put out a midfield that's been the same and our forwards are changing." He went on to say, "I think that everyone is comfortable with the guys on the field, but that being said, it's not as smooth as a transition, and that takes time to build those relationships and understand that special awareness that comes with those." Juninho also indicated that building a central tandem partnership with whomever wins the spot will take time.
While one could argue that these are the sort of things that should be worked out mostly in preseason and that most MLS teams around the league don't see this much rotation early on to start the season, the fact of the matter is, Bruce Arena has won 50% of the MLS Cups since his first full season with the Galaxy in 2009, and he damn near almost won that one too. It's also notable that the year the Galaxy started the season 13 games unbeaten, they won the Supporters' Shield but failed to make it to the Cup final. That was back in 2010.
At the same time, however, if not for the grace of the Houston Dynamo, the Galaxy wouldn't have hosted MLS Cup in 2012. That's not to say that they still wouldn't have won it, but it would have been a lot harder playing on the road on the East Coast. It also goes to show you that because MLS seeding determines the hosting of the final, there is an inherent risk in this approach.
"It takes time, but at the same time, we can't look back at the end of the year and say ‘where did we lose points'" A.J. DeLaGarza told us as he left practice.
It was probably the quote on the day that best personifies the tightrope which Bruce Arena seemingly chooses to walk so differently than most. Whether it's right or wrong, that's debatable. What's not debatable, however, is the success. Not the success in the beginning, but the success in the end.