In the Bruce Arena era, the LA Galaxy have been notoriously slow starters and have waited until the second half of the season to start climbing the table. 2015 has been no exception to this trend, and LA continued their march up the standings with a hard-fought 2-1 victory against FC Dallas in hot and humid conditions at Toyota Stadium. The Galaxy are now in first place on points in the Western Conference (but only 4th in points per match), and look capable of continuing this run of form into the playoffs.
Of course, that's not to say that there aren't still weaknesses that need to be addressed. Let's take a look in more detail.
- Another three points on the road: After going nearly a year without a road victory, the Galaxy have reeled off two straight. At the beginning of the season, I talked about how the Galaxy need to win at home and draw on the road. With that in mind, they should average a point per game on the road, which they have fallen well short of. However with the past two wins, they went from only five points on the road to eleven. Having played 14 road matches this season, a couple more wins gets them above that expected average. Of course they still have to make up for their ties and losses at home... so let's just hope they win out on the road. Regardless of what happens, this is a great result against a very tough Dallas squad.
- Beat the heat: Dallas wasn't the only opponent that LA faced in this match. It was hot and humid in Frisco, Texas, creating a great test for Steven Gerrard and his teammates. Gerrard had, perhaps, his worst outing thus far with the Galaxy when playing in the heat of Houston in late July. However he and his teammates did a very good job of managing the conditions, and actually came into the match in the second half. Gerrard was careful when and where he made his runs. He focused on defending first, and letting his teammates get into the attack, saving his energy. He made a number of great defensive plays and recovery runs. In last week's article, I asked who would step up and defend for LA. Gerrard answered that clearly: he wasn't going to let Dallas just run through the midfield. He and his teammates' ability to take on tough conditions like this, keep the game in front of them, and then turn on the energy when needed will serve them well in the playoffs.
- Robbie Keane is on fire: Speaking of heat. How about Keane and his effort on the night? In his 100th match with the Galaxy, the Irish international had five shots, two goals, a key pass, and looked to have all the energy he needed to pester Dallas' back line. He did an especially good job in the second half, when Giovani dos Santos switched with Gyasi Zardes and Keane moved from striker to more of a withdrawn forward. While Keane scored both goals on headers (one on a cross from Robbie Rogers, and the other from a fast break with dos Santos), his ability to show for the ball in midfield and facilitate the transition into the attacking third was the key to LA's improved ability to hold on to the ball early in the second half and go from being down a goal to up a goal in less than five minutes. With 13 goals and 5 assists in only 16 matches this season, Keane continues to show why he LA's best player.
- A tactical victory: This match was a great test for an LA side that is finally starting to come into it's own. It was the first time all season that Arena was able to field the same squad two matches in a row, but it's clear that the players are still working on getting comfortable with one-another. One of the impressive things about this match was that, in spite of the fact that Dallas dominated possession (with nearly 60%) and had an advantage in shots (13 to 10) LA actually did a great job tactically controlling the match. In the first half, they kept the game in front of them. They sat back and defended and didn't take a lot of chances. We'll talk about the goal that they gave up, but other than that, they kept a very talented Dallas attack fairly quiet. Then, early in the second half, Arena made the aforementioned switch with Zardes and dos Santos and pushed for a couple of goals. After gaining the lead, he switched the players back again to compensate for dos Santos' lack of defense. These types of victories are the ones where players learn to trust their coach, and teams come together. Arena seems to be waving his magic wand over this group and convincing them to do what it takes to get the tough victories.
- Yet another defensive lapse: As stated above, LA did a good job of stifling a potent FC Dallas attack (although it bears mentioning that Dallas was without playmaker Mauro Diaz). However, the goal that they scored in the 33rd minute resulted from a comedy of errors by LA. For starters, Zardes failed to make a strong challenge for a header in midfield, leading to a counter-attack. A.J. DeLaGarza then got caught ball watching as Michael Barrios raced by him. Omar Gonzalez went to ground a little too slowly, allowing Barrios to chip the ball just enough to beat the tackle. While DeLaGarza made a great recovery run and poked the ball away from behind, it actually allowed Barrios to round Donovan Rickets (more on that below) and walk the ball into the goal. It was a goal the team should not have conceded, and the kind of mental lapses that have plagued them all season. While LA continues to concede just slightly less than one goal per game with Gonzalez in the lineup, it would be great to see them eliminate these mistakes and at least force their opponents to earn their goals.
- Donovan Ricketts: While it's tough to blame Ricketts for the goal that LA gave up, there's no question that he played a role in it. As Barrios came in on him, he went to ground very early, which put him way out of position when DeLaGarza was able to poke the ball away from the Dallas attacker. If the big Jamaican had stood his ground, I think he could have beaten the Barrios to that loose ball, or at least made it a little harder for him to poke it into the net. In addition, Ricketts looked just a little shaky all night. He didn't inspire confidence, and his distribution was terrible, as he often kicked balls into touch, or over-shot his forwards. He needs to get better.
- Lletget shows his youth: After having a stellar start to his Galaxy career, we are starting to see the play from Lletget that may have kept him out of the West Ham first team. While he continues to work hard and be dangerous, it seems that the more confident he becomes, the slower he is to give up the ball to his teammates. He looked particularly bad in this area against Dallas, getting dispossessed on multiple occasions when he could have cycled the ball back to the defense, and then, perhaps most obviously, taking a poor shot when LA had a four-on-one counter-attack in the 92nd minute. On that particular play, Gerrard was wide open on his right, and probably would have put the game out of reach if Lletget had simply tapped to ball to him. I'm sure that the young midfielder will get an earful from his coaches and his veteran teammates. Let's hope he can maintain his brash confidence and still learn to be better at looking for the quick pass rather than trying to beat the entire defense on his own.
- What to do with dos Santos: Perhaps the most troubling issue with this match was the play of LA's newest designated player. While the Mexican star was tidy on the ball and managed to get an assist on the winning goal, there were some big issues with his play. In the first half, when he was playing as a withdrawn striker, he had a lot of trouble getting the ball. He tried to show for it, but was constantly beaten by a more physical Dallas defense. As mentioned above, he started the second half as a right midfielder. The problem there was that it really hurt the Galaxy's defensive shape, as he was consistently slow getting back. It was almost like the team was playing with a three-man front line. So if the diminutive attacker can't handle the physicality of being up top, and won't put in the defensive work required from a midfielder in Arena's system, where whould he play? This is going to be an interesting challenge for Arena.