On Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Galaxy squared off against New York City FC in one of the most highly anticipated regular-season matches in the history of Major League Soccer. With six high-profile designated players on the two teams, MLS had arranged for a rare live broadcast in England.
Despite the fact that one of the star players ended up missing the match (Frank Lampard was out with a muscle injury), fans were treated to a wide-open attacking match featuring six goals and many more scoring opportunities. Luckily for LA fans, the attacking play was largely in their team's favor. As such, there are a lot of positives to take away from this match, but there are still a few areas of concern.
- Team and individual defending: I know that everyone is talking about the Galaxy attack (we'll get to that, trust me). However, I think the defense was more impressive in this match. NYC have been averaging 2.25 goals per game in the second half of the season, and a lot of this is due to the play of David Villa and Kwadwo Poku. In the last two matches alone, these two guys had accounted for 20 shots, 4 goals, 10 key passes and 2 assists. Poku has been wrecking defenses with his runs out of midfield, and Villa is a shot (as well as scoring) machine. In the first twenty minutes of the match, we saw glimpses of NYC's potent attack, but LA's defense proved to be up to the challenge. Throughout the match, Omar Gonzalez used his size and excellent positional sense to cut-out and clear a team-high 7 balls from the penalty box. The much maligned Leonardo did a great job standing up Villa and Poku; often picking their pockets like a magician. A.J. DeLaGarza showed his quickness and intelligence with emergency defending, blocking multiple shots from inside the penalty box. After the back line absorbed the initial NYC assault, the midfield stepped up their game and started cutting off passes further up the field. In the end, Villa got his shots (10) and a goal from the penalty spot. However, LA did not give him a single uncontested shot, and managed to limit Poku's contribution on the night to a lone key pass. If the Galaxy can continue to defend like that against other strong attacking teams, the rest of the league should be concerned.
- Patience: The reason the league should be concerned is that LA are going to get their chances to score. The only way that NYC was every going to win this match was to bend, but not break, and try to rely on Villa or Andrea Pirlo to magically create a goal against the run of play. So as the first half wore on, and LA began to squander goal-scoring opportunities, I started to wonder if this wouldn't be their day. However, the squad did what they needed to do. They didn't try to force the attack. They were patient and focused, waiting for NYC to tire and let their guard down. Of course, it was a quick restart that caught City napping, as Juninho sprayed a ball to Robbie Keane who served up a perfect cross to an unmarked Gyasi Zardes. Just like that, NYC was on the back foot. However, that wasn't the end of the patient build-up from LA. The team's ball movement was excellent, probing back and forth from Zardes on the right to Sebastian Lletget and Robbie Rogers on the left. Quite honestly, after that first goal, it was clear that others would come, and LA were content to wait for the opportunities.
- Tidy on the ball: As I said earlier, NYC's only hope in this match was to catch LA on a counter-attack. However, the Galaxy were incredibly tidy with the ball and efficient with their passing in the midfield. While NYC turned the ball over 14 times in and near their half of the midfield, LA only had three such turnovers (not counting goalkeeper distributions out of bounds). In the first half, in particular, NYC consistently turned the ball over in dangerous positions. LA, on the other hand (probably as a result of their patience) were very careful not to give NYC the opportunity to run at their back line with numbers. This tidy play is particularly promising because it will be extremely important when they face strong, fast counter-attacking teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps.
- Spreading the wealth: While the pre-match hype was all about the designated players, LA proved once again that their strengths go beyond their stars. It is amazing how quickly the mid-season acquisitions have gelled with the existing core of the team. Seven different players got on the scoresheet in this match, with the four key attacking players (Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Lletget, and Zardes) accounting for a combined 5 goals, 5 assists, and 9 key passes. Steven Gerrard and Juninho both got assists from the midfield, as did Rogers from his left back position. The bottom line is that opposing defenses can't simply focus on shutting down one or two key players. The attack can come from anywhere.
- Continuity: The scary thing for the rest of the league is that this LA team is still working out the kinks. This was the third match in a row when LA were able to start the same first-choice line-up. If the team can continue to keep most of these guys healthy, and maintain some level of consistency in their formation and roles, these guys should only get better. This is especially important with dos Santos and Gerrard. Both of them are smart players who like to combine with their teammates. In this match we saw a few instances where attacks broke down because the understanding wasn't quite where it needs to be. However, it's getting close, and you know that Bruce Arena is licking his chops thinking about what this team could look like after a couple more matches together.
- Slow start: While the result of this match was great, and the over-all stats tell a story of LA's domination, the Galaxy once again came out of the gate slowly. As Arena said in his post-match comments, over the first fifteen minutes "NYC FC was all over us." This is similar to what we saw against Dallas last week, when LA went down a goal before scrambling back for a 2-1 victory. On one hand, the team needs to do a better job coming out and taking the match to their opponents. On the other, it is good to see the team absorb that pressure and work back into the match. However, if they continue to start slowly, they will eventually run up against a strong defensive side (like Vancouver or New York Red Bull), give up an early goal, and then have trouble breaking them down.
- Soft goal: Along these same lines, it was a shame to see LA give up a soft penalty kick goal. New York actually had a number of decent chances, but Arena has always said that matches are won and lost by the sharpness of a team both attacking and defending in the penalty box. The Galaxy had a lapse in their sharpness when Dan Gargan went to ground un-necessarily and fouled Patrick Mullins, giving Villa the opportunity to convert the ensuing penalty kick. Gargan has had a very solid season for LA this year, so I don't want to pick on him, but you could see he and his fellow defenders were extremely upset about losing the shut-out. It didn't matter in this match, but it could moving forward, and they know that they have to be better about this sort of thing.
- Complacency: In their past ten games, LA have scored 33 goals. That equals or surpasses the scoring totals for half the teams in MLS for this entire season. For those of you who aren't familiar with elementary mathematics, that's 3.3 goals per game (I checked with my calculator). The upshot being that the team is essentially scoring at will. However, this proliferation of goals has led to multiple occasions where players are looking to walk the ball into the net. In this game, there was an exchange between Keane and Gerrard late in the match when neither player looked like they wanted to score. Despite having the goal at their mercy, they dithered around until Jason Hernandez was able to get back and clear the ball over the end-line. While I'm not worried about Keane not taking a shot when the game is still on the line, I think this is emblematic of the biggest pitfalls this team still faces. That is: overconfidence and complacency. Arena needs to hammer home that the team cannot take their new-found attacking prowess for granted. They need to put teams away early, and mercilessly. As the race for the Supporter's Shield tightens up, and the playoffs draw nearer, goals are going to be harder to come by, and LA needs to make every opportunity count.