Things have not been rosy for Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy for the past few weeks. You could argue that they still aren't. However, the Galaxy managed to secure a crucial three points at home on Friday night against the visiting Houston Dynamo. It was an exhilarating match for a number of reasons, so let's run through the take-aways.
- Alan Gordon: What can you say about this guy? He always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, that's hyperbole. Maybe it's best to look at what Bruce Arena said when asked about his impressions of Gordon: "My impressions right now are very good. Alan does what he does. He’s scored four goals this year. He’s done really well. He understands how to play at the end of the game. I give him a lot of credit." So... just one more stoppage-time game-winning goal for Gordon to add to his tally.
- Possessing the ball: For the first two-thirds of the match, LA did an excellent job possessing the ball, and dispossessing their opponents. Granted, for most of that time Houston seemed content to let them hold the ball and try to counter-attack, but at times they did employ a high press, and LA handled it well. Weirdly, though, when Robbie Keane came into the match in the 56th minute, all of a sudden they could no longer hold on to the ball. From that point on, Houston had the majority of possession, and LA was the team trying to run the counter-attack. The question is whether or not this was a tactical move by Houston coach Owen Coyle. He may have decided that Keane was too dangerous up top to let LA knock it around. Either way, it was nice to see LA look more competent on the ball.
- Squad depth: Have we been here before? Yes we have... and it looks like we'll continue to be here for a while. LA started their 12th distinct lineup in 13 matches. Despite that, LA once again showed that they have the ability to compete with any team in the league on any given day. As I've said before, the confidence and experience that fringe players are getting in these matches will be huge for this team down the stretch.
- Return of key players: With all of the injuries that LA has had to deal with, it was inevitable that some guys would get healthy eventually. This week it was two key guys in the attack: Jose Villareal, and Keane. Villareal, with his first start since March 21st (coincidentally, also against the Dynamo), was very solid in this match. After watching Ignacio Maganto and Bradford Jameison IV for the past few weeks, the poise and maturity that he displayed was a tangible improvement. Villareal is a very good young player, and is not far from becoming an impact guy. Speaking of impact guys, Keane clearly demonstrated why he is one. He changed the complexion of the match and ended up with the game-winning assist. The bit of extra quality that he possesses made all the difference on that beautiful lofted ball to Gordon's head. If Keane can get totally healthy, teams have to game-plan differently when they prepare to face the Galaxy. Let's hope that's what the future looks like.
- Solid defending: Perhaps the most important player to be reintroduced into the starting lineup this week was Omar Gonzalez. He really has become a leader in the back. His strong organizational skills, his ability to read the game, and his poise on the ball all make LA a much better team. With his leadership, the back-line looked quite solid again. Of particular note, Oscar Sorto looked very promising on the the left. He may be the right-back of the future for this team... and the future may be sooner than we think. Of course, LA are lucky enough to have Dan Gargan at that spot right now. He put in a very good shift as well, so maybe I shouldn't be so quick to push him out the door for Sorto. However, in addition to Gonzalez's return to the lineup, perhaps the biggest factor in the improved defense was was the commitment exhibited in the midfield. When a defender was beaten, Juninho or Mika Vayrynen seemed to be right there to cover for them. Over-all, the only real downside to the defensive performance on the night was Leonardo's mistake in the ninth minute that sent Will Bruin in on goal alone. In that instance, Jaime Penedo came up huge to snuff out the threat. It was a great defensive performance all-around.
- Possession without penetration: As I mentioned above, it was great to see LA possess the ball for large stretches of the match, but they really did not look dangerous until Keane came into the lineup. That's something that both Villareal and Gyasi Zardes need to think about. Those guys both have the potential to be dangerous, but just can't seem to kick it up a notch. They need to do so if this team hopes to get back to the elite level at which they have been for the past few years.
- Return of Robbie Keane: While there is no denying the positive aspects that Keane brings to this team, it's frustrating to see some of the negatives. When Keane came on the pitch and had his first play when things didn't workout the way he intended, he rooted his feet in the ground and turned to berate one of his teammates. He did this while Houston was mounting a counter-attack. Keane gives up on the play far too often, and actually distracts his teammates from executing their defensive duties. I think this was one factor in the shift in possession once Keane was on the pitch. If the guy could learn to be a little more mature in his response to small failures, I think the whole team would benefit. I'd be curious to know what readers think of this. Let me know in the comments below.
- Rookie mistake by Oscar Sorto: As I said above, Sorto had a great match. When asked about his play, Arena (whom we have already established is not prone to hyperbole) said, "Oscar played well. He had a really good game. Right from the start, he showed a lot of confidence. He played really well." However, that late slide tackle that led to the (highly questionable) red card was completely unnecessary, and could well have cost LA two points. Sorto will mature and learn from this experience, which is a good thing... but with the margins between wins and ties, and ties and losses so small this year, the team cannot afford that kind of mistake on a regular basis.
- More injuries: So the revolving door that is the LA Galaxy line-up continues to spin. AJ DeLaGarza and Sebastian Lletget are the latest to exit. While neither guy was listed on the injury report, it was thought that both had a knock keeping them out of the game-day eighteen. It seems that LA have averaged about two injuries per match this season. Let's hope this rate dwindles, or we may end up seeing a roster of Los Dos players soon.
While it's tough to be upset about a win at home, LA are still getting it done by the skin of their teeth. At the same time, three points is three points, and this win was exactly the kind of scrappy affair that has pushed the team to championships in years past. If they can continue to play like this until reinforcements arrive this summer, they could vault themselves back into the upper echelon of the league. Until then, though, it looks like more grinding.