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The Board Room: Chief Forward Operators

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Bruce Arena continues to blur the boundaries that separate a forward from a midfielder, but one thing remains clear: You can take the player out of the position, but you can't take the position out of the player.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It's Monday afternoon on the East Coast, and some three thousand miles west, Bruce Arena is furiously scribbling meaningless equations and endless combinations of names on a dusty chalkboard in the back of an LA Galaxy film room.

This is the life of a mad scientist, or an abstractionist, surrealist sculptor, hell-bent on stretching a 4-4-2 into unrecognizable shapes and contortions.

Though Arena's pursuit of this high-art end continues to confound and infuriate fans and pundits alike, it's important to remember that it hasn't not worked. Through three games, the Galaxy are 2-1-0 with a +4 goal differential and have spent plenty of time on the front foot. In their most recent 3-1 Cali Classico victory over the San Jose Earthquakes, they completed 87% of their passes and held over 64% of possession.

In their opening night win over D.C. United, they also held just under 60% of possession, completed over 80% of their passes, and scored four goals.

I'm not going to focus heavily on the Galaxy's road loss to Colorado in week two, because it was a classic case of the Colorado Rapids doing exactly what the Colorado Rapids do: clog the middle and slow the game down to an incredibly, unwatchably slow tempo and beat teams in the ugliest way they know how. That's exactly what happened when LA came to town, and a stoppage time scrum finished off by Marco Pappa was enough to get them what they wanted.

Instead I'm going to focus on how the LA Galaxy structure their midfield and forward personnel against teams who actually try to play soccer because that is, after all, what this is all about... right?

The lone constant three weeks into MLS 2016 has been the deployment of noted non-winger Gyasi Zardes as a winger and noted forward Robbie Keane as a forward. A combination of injuries and tinkering has had it's way with the rest of the Galaxy's attacking personnel, which has only featured Giovani dos Santos once.

Mike Magee came off the bench in week one, replacing dos Santos and shifting the Galaxy into a 4-4-2. The game opened up immediately and Magee had a field day, scoring twice and adding an assist. Zardes may as well have not been on the field.

On Saturday, Magee and Zardes both started as wide midfielders/wingers in a 4-4-2 underneath the (nominal) forward pairing of Robbie Keane and Sebastian Lletget. The result was a largely impotent attack that eventually broke through against a San Jose team that did exactly what the stats said they would do.

The biggest problem with using Magee and Zardes as wide midfielders in a 4-4-2 is that they simply aren't the kind of players that can connect positive passes and reliably maintain meaningful possession in attacking areas. They're forwards. Specifically, they are instinctive, specialized forwards who do their best work very close to goal. Not quite "poachers," but close.

If you need further proof, here's Gyasi Zardes' map of successful passes from Saturday's match:

That's not what you want to see from a winger, folks. There's a very low concentration of successful passes in the final third, he's mostly positioned right around midfield, and very nearly every single pass he made in the attacking half of the field was backwards.

He completed zero (0) crosses. ZERO.

For added context, Mike Magee had a hand in both of Gyasi's goals. His corner kick was headed down into Gyasi's path at the goal line by Jelle Van Damme, and he got on the end of a long ball and played it into the path of Gyasi, who finished it off from inside the box.

Here's Magee's passing map.

It's a little better, folks. Not much better, but there's a clear difference in the amount of danger created by these two guys who continue to get played out of position.

I hesitate to say that this nonsense "worked" against San Jose, but the fact is that, at the end of the day, it "worked."

My biggest fear is that Bruce Arena, as he has demonstrated in the past, will continue to be unable to separate that this "worked" from how and why it "worked."

For example, Gyasi wasn't smoking San Jose defenders down the channel and spraying in dangerous crosses from the run of play and Mike Magee wasn't shuttling inside, connecting a high volume of dangerous passes in the final third, and working the overlap with Robbie Rogers.

They didn't do the things that wingers are supposed to do. They did the things that forwards are supposed to do... because they're forwards.

Gyasi fought off a defender on a corner kick and stabbed home on the goal line from a Jelle Van Damme header. Mike Magee made life miserable for a center back on a central long ball and found a way to play it to Zardes, who was wide open on the other side of the box.

The LA Galaxy are better off when Magee and Zardes are playing as forwards because they're both forwards. Their skill sets are incredibly valuable, but not when deployed in wide midfielder positions. It's true for the Galaxy, and it's true when Zardes is playing with the US National Team.

I'm not entirely sure what Bruce Arena is scrawling on that chalkboard. I'm not even sure if that chalkboard exists, but whatever equations are being messily scribbled on whatever surface, they don't add up. Eventually the LA Galaxy are going to play against a team that isn't awful this season, and they're going to need to find a way to come up with answers very quickly.