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Positives and Negatives: Portland Timbers at LA Galaxy

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The LA Galaxy had their best performance of 2015 in a comprehensive 5-0 victory over the visiting Portland Timbers.

Sebastian Lletget and Robbie Keane were too much for the Portland defense to contain
Sebastian Lletget and Robbie Keane were too much for the Portland defense to contain
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

After half of a season wondering what this LA Galaxy squad would look like if they could get their top players all on the field together, we got a bit of an answer on Wednesday night. The Galaxy had their most complete performance of the season, as they defeated a strong Portland Timbers team 5-0. Bruce Arena, in typical fashion, claimed that the scoreline flattered his squad. Let's talk about that in a little more detail.

Positives:

  • The shutout: After a match like this, everyone wants to talk about the goals. Yes. LA's attack looked spectacular on the night, but any long-term follower of MLS knows that you don't win championships with a spectacular attack. You win them with a staunch defense. With that in mind, LA fans should be excited about the team's defensive performance against a very strong Timbers attacking corps. Yeah, Portland had a few chances, but on the night they had only one shot on goal (and that was from nearly thirty yards out). Their shots in the box were all half-chances at best. Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza looked very solid in central defense (surprise, surprise), and the rest of the squad provided quick cover any time there looked to be a threat. At one time during the match it looked like Portland was going to get a shot off only for the announcer to declare that "a wall of white" had descended, snuffing out the threat. If LA can continue to play defense at this level, they will have a shot at a result in any match against any team in the league.
  • The energy: While LA started a little slowly (more on that below), the team's energy level was very good for the final eighty minutes of the match. In particular, Sebastian Lletget did a very good impression of 2014 Marcelo Sarvas, something that the team has been missing. Lletget was a pitbull both on and off the ball. He closed down Portland attackers. He fought through tough challenges. He made things happen and created mismatches. The great thing is that, while he was the most notable guy going all-out, his teammates all seemed to be doing their parts as well. Gyasi Zardes, while not getting on the score-sheet, continued to make all of the tough off-the-ball runs that he's been making all season. Robbie Rogers and Dan Gargan shut down the Timbers' talented wingers, and created dangerous wide options for LA in the attack. Finally, Juninho once again covered a ton of ground and did all the things that Juni does to help the team control the flow of the match. As a team, this was probably as energetic a performance as we've seen all season.
  • The multi-pronged attack: Speaking of playing "as a team," five guys scored goals in this match: Lletget, Keane, Rogers, Juninho, and Jose Villareal. In the last two matches, eight different players have scored goals. While Arena quipped in his post-game comments that he doesn't care if one guys scores all five goals, the fact that the Galaxy are producing scoring chances for multiple players using multiple styles of attack makes them very hard to game-plan against. Let's look at the ways in which LA are scoring goals: They've scored off of set pieces (both corners and free kicks). They've scored on the counter-attack. They've scored on brilliant individual runs. They've scored on brilliant combination plays. They've broken down a compact defense with short, quick passing. In other words, we are, once again, seeing the diversity in attacking options that made this team so deadly in 2014. When Steven Gerrard arrives, he should add yet another weapon to this diverse attacking arsenal. If LA can keep their players healthy, this is going to be a very tough team to shut down.
  • The intimidation factor: Early in in he 2015 campaign, it became clear that other MLS teams thought that LA were vulnerable. They came at the Galaxy with early and high pressure, forcing give-aways and not allowing the team to ever put together a dangerous attack. The truth is that LA had a lot of trouble responding to this tactic. They weren't able to break down opposing teams and punish high pressure with quick counter-attacks. Because of this, opponents came into these matches with a mindset for attacking play. I suspect that that mindset is at least partially responsible for the past two results. Both the Union and the Timbers came into StubHub Center thinking that they could play an open attacking style and go toe-to-toe with this team. Realisticly, we're unlikely to see that tactic much for the rest of the season. Other MLS squads have been put on notice. The Galaxy have once again shown that they are capable of punishing any team that does not take their attack seriously. This intimidation factor is both a blessing and a curse. Other teams are going to be much more cautious going forward. They are going to try to grind out results rather than slug it out. However, there are going to be teams that play scared against LA. Teams that are spooked by the idea of Zardes, Keane, and Lletget running at them with the ball. Of course, if you are a Galaxy fan, that's exactly what you want.

Negatives:

  • Slow start: I mentioned above that teams have come into matches with LA this season employing the high press with a lot of success. We saw that again in this match, and despite the fact that the Galaxy were eventually able to break that press and then break open the match, the first ten minutes or so were tense if you are a fan of LA. The Timbers seemed to win a lot of second balls, and LA players had a tough time controlling the tempo. It would be great to see the team come out with a little more energy and not give their opponents that initial burst of possession. The danger there is that if the Timbers were able to score a goal in the first rush of blood, then they have the luxury of sitting back and forcing LA to break down a compact and organized defense. I suspect we will see a lot of that going forward this year, which is why this team needs to fix their slow starts.
  • Affording opponents opportunities: I may be nitpicking here, but it seemed that LA gave their opponents too many opportunities. They did a great job snuffing out those threats... but why allow the threats to develop in the first place? It's only a matter of time until the team concedes a goal on a set piece or corner kick, and they seemed a little too blase about giving those up. Of course, the Timbers are a good attacking team with a lot of speed, so in some ways you could argue that this was a tactical decision. None-the-less, I can't help but agree with Arena that the score of this match did flatter LA a little bit, and the team still needs to do better about snuffing out attacks before they get dangerous.
  • How to respond to the bunker: Once again, because of the strong performance in this match, I'm looking more towards a future warning than a criticism. As I mentioned above, with the intimidation factor coming back into play for this LA squad, they are not likely to have many more open, free-flowing games like this one. They are more likely to face teams trying to grind out a result. The diversity of attacking tactics that LA have shown in recent matches offer some hope that they can counter this, but it will be interesting to see how effective this team can be against a squad that sits back with ten players behind the ball and dares Keane and company to try to break through.
It's hard not to be optimistic after the last three matches (including the US Open Cup game last week). LA are rounding into form, and (in Lletget) seem to have found a new attacking option to compliment Keane, Zardes, and the incoming Gerrard.

Of course, just as they are hitting their stride, the squad will be depleted by international call-ups to the Gold Cup tournament. So let's just take a few days and enjoy this result. Let's look forward to the weekend match-up against San Jose and see how the team responds to that test. We'll worry about the future when it gets here.