The LA Galaxy have had a pattern this season: Win-Draw-Draw-Loss-Loss-Win. On Wednesday night, the team started the third iteration of that pattern with a nice 1-0 victory of Real Salt Lake. This was, perhaps, the best performance by the team in some time, so it should be fun to take a look at the positives and negatives of LA's performance in this match.
- Another shutout: The LA defense is playing very well right now. Omar Gonzalez is, arguably, having his best season ever. When he's on the pitch, LA's goals-against average is right up there with the best in the league. However, in this match, everyone on the back-line came through. Leonardo managed to limit the number of mental errors he's making, the outside-backs-by-committee (chaired by Dan Gargan) was solid, and Jaime Penedo seems to have improved his communication and consistency. On the night, the squad only gave Salt Lake one real chance, when Joao Plata managed to get behind the defense late in the second half (luckily he was unable to control the ball). Every other time that RSL started to look dangerous, a defender would cut out a pass or make a timely tackle. On the few occasions when that didn't happen, the midfield did a great job covering back, or even winning the ball before it got to the back line. All-in-all this was the type of defensive performance that has been the foundation of LA's success in the Bruce Arena era.
- Some dangerous attacking: While the defense was great in this match, we saw something else that has been less common this season. The attack actually looked pretty dangerous for good stretches. This has been a real problem for the team, and while they only managed to put in one goal, they did manage to consistently create dangerous chances from the opening kick to the closing whistle. A lot of this may be related to the return of key players (more on that below), but regardless of the reason, this was probably one of the most entertaining matches LA have played since their opening night victory over the Chicago Fire.
- Team energy: Ignacio Maganto earned a penalty kick in the sixth minute largely because the team came out with a ton of energy. They were pressing high early, denying Salt Lake players the ball, and attacking hard once they won it. Juninho, Jose Villarreal, and Gyasi Zardes were all notably active in the early going, and even though the team sat back a little deeper after the first half hour of the match, they still did a good job preventing Salt Lake from ever really developing a rhythm.
- Players getting healthy: As I mentioned above, I thought Villarreal had a very good first half. His return from injury has really helped LA's attack. He's surprisingly strong on the ball, and has an added maturity that the youngsters that had replaced him can't seem to replicate quite yet. In addition, it was great to see Edson Buddle back on the pitch. While he clearly has lost a step in the quickness department, he's a skilled player who can do a great job killing the game (which he demonstrated with aplomb on this occasion). If he can stay healthy, he should be a real asset as we get deeper into the season and the schedule starts getting more hectic. Of course, the most important player returning from injury is Robbie Keane. While Keane still doesn't look to be quite back to his normal self, he takes this team to a different level in the attack. His ability to draw defenders and put the ball into dangerous positions for his teammates cannot be replicated by any other player currently on the roster. With an away game on artificial turf coming up on Sunday, it will be interesting to see which of these guys (if any) get time on the pitch. Arena may simply decide that (much like the Orlando match) it's better to rest guys and deal with the drop in quality than to risk long-term injury.
- Baggio Husidic: Among the positive's from this match, I've saved Husidic for last. I could have mentioned him above when talking about defense, team energy, or even dangerous attacking play. However, I wanted to give him a little special attention. He is a very versatile player. While he's not the best player in any one position, he can adequately fill a role in six different positions on the field. He had a nightmare of a game against Orlando (the last time he had been slotted in at left back), but returned to that position in this match, and had a wonderful performance. He should definitely get some dap for that.
- Still too slow on the ball: While the team attack in this match was somewhat better than the past few appearances, one of the big downfalls of this squad is that they are still too slow on the ball. The "tiki-taco" that we got used to seeing over the last couple of seasons is nowhere to be found. A lot of this is on the younger players (Maganto in particular), but even the older guys, like Juninho and Alan Gordon seem to be trying to hard to make things happen on their own at times. I suspect that if the team can have a break-out attacking performance and score three or more goals, they may relax and start being less selfish with the ball, but it's hard to know if that will happen or not.
- Sloppy in possession: One of the consequences of slow ball movement is sloppy possession play. While the Galaxy managed to have a healthy majority of possession in the first half, they ended the match pretty much even. Part of that was due to a more defensive posture from playing with the lead, but a lot of it was simply poor passing. The team just does not look comfortable together. Too many times a player zigs when his teammate expects him to zag, or a pass is just not quite in the right spot and possession is lost. I'm sure Arena is drilling the guys really hard on this, and there's a good chance that when Steven Gerrard arrives in a little more than a month, he will provide a little added quality that should also result in some improvement. However, it will be really interesting to see how much improvement in this department we see over the remainder of the season.
- Robbie Keane team defense: Yeah... I'm going to pick on Keane. There's no question that he is the best player on the team. He's got tons of fire, he's smart, he's tricky on the ball, he sees the field like no one else, and he can setup a teammate or score a goal out of nothing. However, (much like last week) as soon as he came on the pitch you could see the effect that he had on the team defense. He simply needs to work harder when he loses the ball. He's always had a tendency to get frustrated when things don't go his way, but he seems to be a little bit worse right now than he's been in the past. Arena needs to review the tape with him and say, "Look. You were only in the match for 45 minutes. You need to be pressing your opponents when you turn the ball over. Sure... pick your spots to rest... but you really need to more consistently help your teammates get the ball back." We'll see if that happens as the Irish international returns to form. Let's hope so.