Following last weeks' 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake, the LA Galaxy was in desperate need of a victory. After more than three games without a goal, they managed to jump-start their attack and hang on for a 3-2 victory. While the team may have been unlucky to not score more goals, their defense was suspect, and many of the problems that have surfaced over the past three matches appear to be unresolved.
- Three goals: Before this match, the last goal that LA had scored in MLS play was on August 23rd against NYCFC. So coming into this match, it had been more than a month, and nearly 280 minutes of game time since the team had found the back of the net. Two early goals in the first half (in the 11th and 14th minutes, respectively) followed by an early goal in the second half put an end to that scoring drought. Perhaps more importantly, there could have been a lot more goals for LA in this match. Robbie Keane hit the woodwork at least twice, the team created a lot of chances, and they ended up with 12 shots on target. On the attacking end of the field, this was definitely a match to build on.
- Three points: MLS may be having one of the most exciting races for the Supporters' Shield that the league has ever seen, and the three points from this win put LA in the lead (for the moment). The Galaxy have 50 points with three games remaining, but there are five other teams within three points of them. Dallas, with two games in-hand and 47 points, are still slightly ahead of LA in points-per-game, and the New York Red Bulls (also with two games in-hand, but 48 points) lead the league. However, depriving Dallas of any points in this match, and picking up three of their own, put LA in the driver's seat for a first round bye in the playoffs. They need to win all of their final three matches and get some help from other teams if they want to have a shot at the Shield. The bye, however, is more important, and this result was HUGE for that objective.
- Three Designated Players: Three designated players. Three goals. Giovani dos Santos, Keane, and then Steven Gerrard. They did what they were brought in to do. Thy made a difference. Keane and dos Santos was particularly effective in the attack, with the two goals and and six shots, as well as two assists and five key passes combined. Gerrard did his part as well, scoring the winning goal and putting a couple more shots on frame. The really exciting aspect of these guys' play tonight is that, with the possible exception of Keane, they weren't really that sharp. If they can be this effective when things aren't going great, the rest of the league better hope that they don't all get on the same page before the playoffs start.
- The return of tiki-taco: Speaking of getting on the same page... after consistently attacking via route 1 for the past three matches (by-passing the midfield and sending balls over the top) LA started the game by getting back to their strengths; pressing Dallas and then working the ball up the field with quick combination play. The first goal saw the ball ping around from Robbie Rogers to dos Santos to eane to Gyasi Zardes and back to dos Santos in about six seconds, moving from the left wing to the right and back into the center of the goal-mouth. The second goal was a nine pass sequence out of the back involving six different players. This is the kind of play that makes LA so dangerous. The best thing is that the two goals weren't even the prettiest examples of it, as there were a number of other sequences involving dummies and back-heel flicks to put players in dangerous positions. This is what we love to see from this team. If they continue to stick with their possession play, they should see more success going forward, and continue to give the fans something to watch as well.
In spite of the improved attacking play, there was plenty to worry about in this match. Let's start by looking at the defense.
- Suspect defending: Over the last two matches, LA have given up five goals. The two that they conceded in this match were both mental errors. This "lack of mental sharpness" has been a theme throughout the second half of the season. It is really the only thing that ties together the series of mistakes that have allowed shut-outs to slip away, and turned ties into losses. Donovan Ricketts was the goat on the first goal (with a minor assist from Rogers). A seemingly innocuous ball over the top turned disastrous when the lanky Jamaican hesitated on the edge of his goalie box and allowed Michael Barrios to send a looping header into the corner of the goal. Rogers was a little weak on the challenge, but realistically he did enough to give Ricketts the opportunity to make the save. On the second goal, Gerrard inexplicably left Attiba Harris unmarked, and allowing the former striker to get off a free shot, as Omar Gonzalez tried to cover two players. Needless to say, team defending needs to get better if LA wants to make a deep run in the playoffs.
- Conceding possession: Everyone knows that Dallas are a counter-attacking team with a ton of speed and skill in the open field. With that in mind, I understand that, once they had a two-goal lead (or should I say twice they had a two goal lead) LA chose to concede the ball to "the hoops" and force them to generate their chances through possession play. In the end it worked out OK, but I'd like to see the Galaxy use the possession game that they have developed to deny their opponents the ball. I just don't see how giving up 55% of the possession and 12 corner kicks is really a plan for getting a shut-out. Then again, Bruce Arena has made a very good living with this sort of play, so maybe I shouldn't be complaining about this tactic. It does make for uncomfortable moments at the end of a close match, though.
- Still looking ragged: For all that the "big three" for LA got their goals and assists, they are still looking pretty ragged out there. As I mentioned earlier, Gerrard played a big part in conceding the second goal, and still did not look that good on the ball. He killed a couple of promising attacks in the first half. On one occasion he made the same run as his teammate, and on another he sent a pass just behind a player running forward into space. He wasn't the only problem out there, but since he is such a central part of the teams' possession and defensive shape, when he isn't on the same page as his teammates, it really stands out. With any luck, he'll round into form as the playoffs approach. By most accounts, MLS is a tough league to get used to. Even the best players often find that they need a few months of adjustment before they hit their stride. Gerrard will get there. Let's hope it's this season rather than next.
- Lack of toughness: Perhaps my biggest concern for this squad heading into the late season and the playoffs is that the team seems to lack some of the bite and mental toughness that past LA squads have had. Gerrard is still finding his feet. Gio seems a little passive. Lletget is untested in the higher-intensity playoff environment. These are the circumstances when guys like Marcelo Sarvas, Baggio Husidic, and Landon Donovan really stepped up for the team. These past four matches, we haven't really seen that, and after watching San Jose man-handle Real Salt Lake in the earlier game this Sunday, it made me wonder what will happen when LA runs up against a team like that in a high-stakes game. This next week's match in Seattle may well be a good indication of how prepared this team is to fight for a result in a hostile environment.
So let's wrap up the theme of this post-match article by looking ahead at the three remaining matches: at Seattle, home against Portland, and at Kansas City.
That's a tough run. All three teams are in the playoff hunt, can beat you up, and can score some goals. However, if this team wants to lift any hardware in 2015, they need to figure out what it takes to get results in those matches. If they don't, it's hard to imagine them getting too deep into the playoffs.