For the first time since August of 2014, the LA Galaxy managed to win a match outside the friendly confines of StubHub Center. It wasn't a pretty game, but according to Steven Gerrard, that was the plan: "The manager has been banging the drum all week about winning ugly."
The Galaxy had to come back from a 0-1 halftime deficit to scrape out a 3-1 victory in a match that was closer than the scoreline may indicate. On the positive side of things, it's not often that a team can get a 3-1 victory on the road and still find tons of room for improvement. If this LA team can win when playing poorly, that bodes well for their stretch run heading into the playoffs.
Let's talk about it in a little more detail.
- Three points on the road: LA's inability to win on the road has been a topic of conversation across the league for some time now. I tend to believe that this was more of a random streak than a systematic problem with the team. However, there's no question that the longer a streak like that goes on, the more it starts to get into guys heads. In other words, what starts out as just random variation can quickly turn into a real problem, where players are overthinking and pushing too hard to break the streak. Because of that, it was very important to get this road win. It will also be important to get another one soon, just to put this whole thing to bed.
- Hint of things to come: The most exiting thing about this match, in my mind, was the starting lineup. Since Gerrard's arrival in early July, we've seen Bruce Arena trying to figure out how he's going to slot the EPL legend into the lineup. We've seen Gerrard deployed as a second forward. We've seen him playing attacking mid in a 4-5-1 with two defensive mids behind him. However, in this match, Arena opted for a 4-4-2 with Gerrard playing as a box-to-box midfielder next to (and slightly in front of) Juninho. This may well be LA's best option going forward. It allows Arena to slot in Giovani Dos Santos at the second forward position (where Alan Gordon started in this match) and still use Sebastial Lletget and Gyasi Zardes on the wings. That may, in fact, be the scariest attacking lineup that MLS has ever seen. The weak link in that lineup will be the 35-year-old Gerrard's ability to cover ground in the midfield (more on this later). Playing at altitude, this was a great test to see if the decorated veteran could pull it off. Early returns are mixed, but it's definitely an over-all positive.
- Three goals: Once again, it's important to remind ourselves that this was a road game at altitude where LA fell behind early and did not create a ton of scoring chances (8 shots, 5 on goal). The silver lining behind this cloud is that the player's quality shone through. All eight of those shots were from inside Colorado's penalty box. The fact that five of those shots were on goal speaks to the composure of LA's attacking players. It's also important to remember that this is an LA squad that did not score more than two goals in a match until the 18th match of the season. The rest of the league are now on notice that LA, even when they are not at their best, can quickly put a game out of reach.
- Sebastian Lletget: While Robbie Keane, Gerrard, and Dos Santos (after his arrival) are going to continue to get most of the attention from the press, Lletget is arguably the best acquisition for LA in 2015. His play in the short time he's been with the Galaxy has been phenominal. He has shown a great work-ethic, high pressing LA's oponents when defending, and making smart off-the-ball runs when LA are in the attack. He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and is not afraid to get stuck in when the need arrises. Perhaps most impressively, he's been clinical in front of the goal. In his ten short matches with the Galaxy, he's scored six goals in only nine shots. This composure in front of the goal was on display against Colorado, when he took a feed from Juninho in the 56th minute and calmly slotted it home to tie up the match. His one weakness this season has been his fitness, and despite struggling with the altitutde (according to Arena's post-match comments), he fought through and had an impact on the match.
- Steven Gerrard: LA fans who suffered through the grinding first half of the 2015 season, waiting for Gerrard's arrival, are finally getting their reward. On Saturday night, the lanky midfielder showed his quality, playing a key role in both the second and third goals on the night. His nifty move in the box and far-post shot forced a brilliant save from Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin, leaving Gordon to clean up the mess, poking home rebound. He also got an assist on a fast-break goal in the dying moments of the game, unselfishly feeding the ball back to Keane. That's why he's here.
- Slow start: As I mentioned in the introduction, this was an ugly match. LA came out looking slow, lifeless, and disengaged. In many ways they looked like they did not want to be in Commerce City at all. That may be understandable, but it's not acceptable. LA have given up an early lead three games in a row now. Arena and the team need to learn to be more consistent in their effort, or it will come back to bite them (as it did in their loss to Houston last week). Of course, a hallmark of Arena-coached teams is peaking at the right time, so I wouldn't bet against this problem being solved over the next couple of months, before the playoffs start.
- Disjointed play: There's no question that this team is talented, but they need to learn to play together. As Arena mentioned in his post-match comments, this was the first time that Gerrard has had the opportunity to play with four other starters (Zardes, Omar Gonzalez, Gordon, and Donovan Ricketts). With this in mind, you can hardly blame the team if they didn't immediately break into "tiki taco." I have little doubt that this will improve as the players get to know one-another, but it may take a while, when Dos Santos is added to the mix in the coming week.
- Robbie Rogers: It may seem that I've been picking on Rogers of late. He is a great player for LA, and has definitely been a net positive. However, he has moments in matches where he seems to lose focus and disengage. He looked out of sorts for the entire first half of this match, and was clearly at fault on the lone goal that LA conceded. Rather than pushing up with the rest of the defense, he wandered out of the back, just watching the play unfold. This wasn't the only time he was caught out of position either, and at one point Leonardo (of all people) had to get in his ear to try to get him refocused. Right now Rogers is the weak link in a strong defensive back line. The frustrating thing is that he has the potential to be much better. Let's hope he can overcome his mental lapses and help this team be the defensive juggernaut that they've been in the past.
- Steven Gerrad: There's no way to sugar-coat this. For much of this match, Gerrard looked like an old man playing a young-man's game. He was not sharp on the ball. He was not dynamic. He was not strong defensively. He was a little petulant when things didn't go his way. Granted, this was his first time playing at altitude, and his first time going 90 minutes for LA. We can all hope that as his fitness gets better he will be more dynamic. However, it is a little disconcerting to watch players like Sarvas blow by him in the midfield like he was a traffic cone. Don't get me wrong! There is no question that Gerrard is a net positive for the team, but Arena is going to have to be very careful in managing his minutes, and mitigating for his weaknesses.