It’s funny what a difference one game can make.
Last week LA fans were jubilant, and fans of other MLS teams were complaining about how this high-salary LA squad made MLS look more like a parody of the BPL than the league of parity.
However, a solid and talented San Jose squad showed, once again, that good coaching and hard work can be enough to beat big named players on any given night. The Earthquakes scored an early goal on a poor bit of defending by LA, and then played solid defense, aided by some home-field refereeing calls, to grind out the victory.
Let’s take a look at it in more detail.
- Defending in the midfield: Despite the fact that LA started slowly and gave up a (relatively) early goal, they actually played a solid defensive game, starting with the midfield. Steven Gerrard’s defensive effort for the club has been a really pleasant surprise since his arrival. Bruce Arena made a big deal talking about getting the England legend close to the goal, but Gerrard has really been very patient, hanging back and helping protect the back four. I thought his defending in this match, especially after the Galaxy went down to ten men, was exemplary. Of course, Juninho did what he normally does as well, but I was also impressed with Sebastian Lletget’s pressure on the ball, and Gyasi Zardes’ ability to anticipate and cut-off passes. Zardes had two interceptions, a blocked pass, and four recoveries in LA’s defensive third. While midfield defending was a question mark with all of LA’s new attacking talent coming into this squad mid-season, I think they’ve shown that they can get the job done.
- Bruce Arena’s faith in his defense: While LA’s defense fell asleep and gave up a bad goal early in the first half, I thought it was great the way that Arena responded to the red card on Leonardo. Missing the team’s most consistent defender over the past few matches? No problem. Let the guys work through it. That’s right. Rather than sub in additional help on the back line, Arena went with a back three. After about ten minutes, he did sub of A.J. DeLaGarza, but he brought in Dave Romney on the left and moved Robbie Rogers to the right. Omar Gonzalez actually played extremely well as a lone center back, and the team did not concede any real scoring chances to their opponents in the second half. I thought it was great to see Arena show the faith he has in his guys to suck it up and push through this adversity.
- Goalkeeping: This is a little bit of a stretch, but since Jaime Penedo’s departure, there has been some concern that Donovan Ricketts was past his prime and would be a bit of a liability in the back for LA. I thought Ricketts played very well in this match. He only needed to make three saves, but he cut out a number of dangerous crosses as well. His save on Quincy Amarikwa’s header that lead to the goal was really the type of reflex save that Penedo was known to make, so it was great to see the lanky Jamaican step up his game and be there for the team. I think this bodes well for the rest of the season.
- Slow start: As has been the pattern in recent weeks, LA got off to a slow start in this match. In his post-game comments, Ricketts noted that, "We were a little bit slow. We got out-hustled on every play tonight. They were more hungry than us." Last week, NYCFC came out and took it to LA in the first fifteen to twenty minutes. The week before, FC Dallas scored an early goal to put the blue and gold behind the eight ball. This match started out the same way, with LA looking like the believed they could just turn up their game whenever they felt like it. The problem was that Amerikwa’s pressure on the Galaxy backline forced Leonardo to foul in a dangerous position. That, in turn, forced the referee to make a decision. In this case, that decision went against LA, and all of a sudden, they were down a goal and down a player in an away match to their biggest rival. You know that Arena is going to use this as a lesson to the players. The question is whether or not they can take it on, and start bringing the intensity from the first whistle. If they can’t, they will be vulnerable to this type of result for the rest of the season.
- Sharpness in both boxes: I know that I’ve mentioned this before, but Arena regularly preaches that you win games in MLS by being sharper than your opponent in both penalty areas. In this match, San Jose was sharper than LA; both with their finishing and their defending. The goal that LA conceded was the fault of a number of players, by Zardes and Gonzalez were both the primary culprits. Zardes was in poor position on Amerikwa’s initial header, and Gonzalez fell asleep and failed to track Shea Salinas’ run, leaving him open to put away the rebound following Ricketts’ stellar save. On the other end of the field, Lletget, Zardes, Gerrard, Juninho, Robbie Keane, and Giovani dos Santos all had opportunities to put the ball on frame and either failed to do so, or offered easy pickings for San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham. A big part of this was the fact that San Jose played a very solid defensive game, but with the quality of attacking players that LA have at their disposal, they have to create at least a couple really dangerous opportunities in every match, and they failed to do so.
- Lack of cohesion in attack: In addition to the lack of sharpness in finishing, the LA attacking players showed some signs of how little they know one another. Keane was in full "shouty-pointy" mode in the 80th minute when he made an unexpected pass to Gerrard, and the ex-Liverpool legend either over-ran the ball or deliberately dummied it to a spot where there was no LA attacker. In addition, we saw both Giovani and Gerrard take shots when there were open attackers in the box that they could have passed to. While we want those guys to get their shots, the attack as a whole needs to be smarter, slightly more patient, and just take a little time to develop a better understanding of one another. San Jose did a great job of making things hard on LA, and hopefully that adversity will help the guys to work through some of these issues heading into the end of the season and the playoffs.
So over-all, it wasn’t a night to remember. San Jose got the kind of win that the LA squads that have won championships in the past were known for. This squad needs to step up their game, sharpen their focus, and ignore the hype if they want to hold onto their 2014 title. They have the players and the staff to make it happen, but performances like this one are not going to get it done.