The LA Galaxy opened competitive play for 2016 with a 0-0 home draw in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Liga MX squad, Santos Laguna. While the game had a few exciting moments, it wasn't a match for the ages. Never the less, after the longest offseason since 2008, it's great to have some on-field action to actually talk about.
You know the drill... so let's get to it!
- Strong defensive performance: One of the scariest moves of the past off-season was saying goodbye to Omar Gonzalez. However, Bruce Arena and company seem to have found a great replacement in Jelle Van Damme. The Belgian international was aggressive but controlled, very communicative, and led the team with 6 clearances from the box. He was partnered with A.J. DeLaGarza, and the two seemed to work very well together While Van Damme provied a strong physical presence, A.J. showed his prowess at reading the game, leading the team with six interceptions. Robbie Rogers and Ashley Cole also looked pretty solid defensively on the outside, not allowing too much penetration to the touch line. To round out the defensive performance, Nigel De Jong had a solid, if unspectacular shift as a defensive midfielder. Overall, it was the type of performance we have come to expect from an Arena-coached defense. After the late-season collapse in 2015, this is a very good sign.
- Decent result: In a home-and-home series, the conventional wisdom is that you need to come away from your home match with a win. However, a 0-0 draw is actually almost as good as a 1-0 win. Any draw in the second leg is a good result for LA at this point. A 0-0 draw (including extra time) would lead to a PK shoot-out, and LA advances with any draw where goals are scored. So basically, the Galaxy know that they need to go to Torreón and not lose. In addition, while LA get to spend the next week preparing for that second leg, Santos have to play a weekend match in Liga MX against Puebla. All in all, it's not a bad result.
- Improved attacking depth: One of the great things about this off-season is that the Galaxy have significantly increased the depth of their attack. While the starting lineup was solid, as time started to wind down, it was exciting to know that we had Sebastian Lletget, Mike Magee, and Alan Gordon to bring in off the bench. When Lletget came on, he made an immediate impact. While Emmanuel Boateng seems to be a crafty winger with a ton of pace, Lletget has a much cleaner touch, and can ride out tough challenges. I actually wish that Arena had brought him in a little earlier. Magee, who came in for Giovani dos Santos with only a few minutes left in the match, didn't really have much of an opportunity to show his quality. Quite honestly, I thought this match was screaming out for Gordon up top. I would have liked to have seen the bruising forward come in for dos Santos in about the 60th minute, and Magee come on for Steven Gerrard for the last 15-20 minutes. I think that would have really invigorated the Galaxy attack, while still limiting defensive liability.
- Room for improvement: Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this performance was that it was a highly competitive match against a quality opponent in mid-season form. This means that, despite all of the "negatives" listed below, there is a ton of room for improvement, and there is every reason to believe that the team will get better as they get more minutes together. The ultimate question is whether or not that improvement happens in time to get a result in this tournament.
- Somewhat anemic attack: Despite out-shooting their opponents 13-10, there is little question that the Galaxy attack is not quite on the same page yet. I'll get into some more specifics below, but the thing that really jumped out to me is that Arena is still trying to figure out how to deploy his players in order to make them the most dangerous while still protecting the back line. The fact that dos Santos lined up at forward despite playing the entire pre-season as a wide midfielder simply highlighted this issue. However, I think the problem is bigger than just whether you put Gio or Gyasi Zardes up top (BTW, Zardes put in a great shift on the wing protecting Rogers). These guys just don't seem to be clicking with one-another. Even when things go well (like that great little combination play in the second half between Gio and Rogers) the final ball just isn't there. You can see Robbie Keane getting frustrated, which is not a good thing. Some of these issues will go away as players round into mid-season form and fitness, but there is clearly still some tinkering to be done to figure out how all the pieces fit together in this puzzling attack.
- Poor communication: One of the most frustrating things about this match was the obvious lack of understanding between Galaxy players. We saw Dan Kennedy, in an otherwise solid performance, not being on the same page with his defenders when it came to cleaning up through-balls. We saw Van Damme all over the pitch, sometimes winning the ball from his own players (or running them over). We saw poor passes in the midfield, and players breaking off runs just as the pass was made. Once again, this looked like a team that has spent only a couple of weeks together. If these guys can start to develop a bit of understanding of one-another, we're going to see significant improvement here.
- Poor touches: It seemed that virtually every player on the pitch had a couple of poor touches in this match. Some killed promising attacks, some created unforced turnovers, and occasionally one would work out to the benefit of LA. There's no question, however, that this was just another reminder of the fact that this squad is still in pre-season form. So how quickly can the players get back their touch? Let's hope there's significant improvement as soon as next week.
- The next match is in Mexico: This is the elephant in the living room. No one really wants to talk about it, but MLS teams have only won in Mexico in CCL matches twice, both times in 2011. Of course, because of this result, the Galaxy don't need a win to advance, but there's no question they have their work cut out for themselves. So while I said earlier that this result was a positive, there's no question that heading into the second leg with a multi-goal lead would have been a much better place to be.