The LA Galaxy opened their 2016 campaign with a victory against the second-most successful club in MLS: DC United. However, just as the 0-4 loss to Santos Laguna mid-week may have looked worse than it actually was, the 4-1 score line may mask some serious issues with this performance.
- Three points: Winning is what the game is all about, so before I get all maudlin about what the team did wrong, let's celebrate this home opener. There's nothing more fun than watching LA put up four goals at home. This was not an easy match, as DC are a strong, well-coached team, and Ben Olsen always wants to do well against his old mentor. The past few years, LA has started off slowly, and at times, points dropped early in the year have come back to haunt them. Let's hope that this match sets the tone for the first two months of the season, and the Galaxy continue to bank points so the end of the season isn't quite as "exciting" as it has been in the recent past.
- The legend of Mike Magee: The Highlander is back. What more can Magee do to burnish his reputation as a Galaxy player? For those of you who are new to following the team, he's the guy who volunteered to play goalkeeper against the San Jose Earthquakes when the starting 'keeper was injured and the backup got a red card (yeah... he got the shut-out). He's the guy who scored three goals in the 2011 playoffs to help LA win the cup. So today, he comes in as a substitute at halftime with the Galaxy trailing 1-0. He replaces the $8m man (Giovani Dos Santos), and has an assist on the opening goal, scores the go-ahead goal with a cheeky lob of the keeper, draws a PK that Robbie Keane puts away for the third goal, and then ices the game by heading home a Steven Gerrard free kick. That's two goals, an assist, and a drawn PK in 45 minutes work. More importantly, his movement off the ball and good decision-making on the ball did wonders to open up the LA attack. We are not worthy!
- Depth: I know I keep going on-and-on about this team's depth, but let's look at this squad for a minute. We have Alan Gordon, Jelle Van Damme, Jeff Larentowicz, Leonardo, and Jose Villarreal all missing from the game-day eighteen. All of these guys could (arguably) be starters in this league. However, the front office has done such a good job putting together this roster that even without them, the team is extremely competitive. Specifically: as mentioned above, Magee came off the bench to be the man-of-the-match; Daniel Steres, our fourth central defender on the depth chart, started, played well in the defense, and scored the opening goal; Baggio Husidic played well off the bench as defensive support once the team got the lead; Brian Rowe came in for Dan Kennedy in goal (after an apparent soft tissue injury) and didn't miss a beat. Not only that, but the team still had strong cover on the rest of the bench (Emmanual Boateng, Dave Romney, and Oscar Sorto have all proven their utility), and Sebastian Lletget had a strong game after apparently winning back his starting spot from Boateng. Let's hope that the team can shake this early-season injury bug... but it's nice to know that the bench guys can pull us through.
- Room for improvement: The reality of this match is that LA did not play particularly well. The team looked sloppy and uninspired in the first half. I'll talk more specifically about that below, but the positive take is that there is plenty of room for improvement. As players become more familiar with one-another, I'm hoping to see better communication in the defense and midfield, more dynamism in the attack, and most importantly, I'm hoping to see these guys start to look like they are really playing for one-another, instead of just doing their jobs. I think we saw hints of all of that in the second half of this match, and that get's me excited for the game next week in Colorado.
- The designated players: To be blunt, our designated players are the weakest links in this squad. Sure, Keane got a goal off a PK, and looked dangerous at times, but he doesn't seem to be the same player he was last year. Let's hope it's just a brief dip in form. The guy has delivered plenty for LA fans, and owes the fans nothing. However, both Gerrard and Dos Santos need to seriously up their games. Quite frankly, I thought Gerrard was the worse of the two in the first half. He had multiple give-aways in dangerous positions (one leading directly to the DC goal). When his passes did connect, they often put his teammates under pressure, leading to other give-aways. In addition, DC attackers seemed to run right by him all match long, and his movement off the ball was sporadic, as if he were saving his energy. This was the DP who wasn't subbed off the field at halftime! Dos Santos was simply a non-factor in the first half. His movement off the ball was so bad that between the 15th and 37th minute he managed only two touches. That's right. He went through 22 minutes of the match, and only saw the ball twice. In my opinion, both Dos Santos and Gerrard should be looking at some time on the bench. Gio may have lost his starting spot to Magee already, but I would love to see Bruce Arena tell Gerrard that he's only getting sixty minutes in the next match, and he should try to expend more energy in that time. If that doesn't work, I honestly think that Husidic, while not as dynamic in the attack, is an improvement over a thirty-five year-old Gerrard.
- Off-the-ball movement: This may be a little redundant, as I already mentioned it above, but the Galaxy, for the most part, did not look dynamic and energetic in the attack. This was mostly due to guys failing to make runs off the ball. I already pointed out Gerrard and Gio, but there seems to be a more general malaise on the squad. The defense works the ball around the back, waiting for space to open up, or someone up front to make a run, and nothing seems to happen. This has to improve id the team hopes to continue scoring goals.
- Give-aways in the midfield: I talked about this above as well. As a team, we seem to be a little naive working the ball through the midfield. On the goal that we conceded, Gerrard tried a cheeky back-heel in the center of the field in the LA defensive third. That's the kind of play that would get you benched in a high school JV game. However, Stevie G wasn't the only culprit. Robbie Rogers (who was actually pretty steady otherwise) also had several bad give-aways trying to pass the ball into the center in his defensive third. The Galaxy were actually very lucky that DC was unable to capitalize on more than one of these mistakes. If they continue this trend, they will give up a lot of goals.
- Lack of commitment: The most troubling thing that I'm seeing from this squad is that there still seems to be a general lack of commitment to one-another. Guys just don't really seem to be "in it to win it" (to pull out a cliche). You see it in the team defending. You see it on set pieces. In a weird way, what we saw tonight was young guys (like Steres and Gyasi Zardes) and old MLS veterans (like Magee and Keane) leading the team where the new European imports were content to sit back and see how things played out. As the game progressed, I felt like both Nigel De Jong and Ashley Cole started to get into the rhythm of things and put in some hard work. I'm hoping that all of these guys (both Gerrard and Dos Santos, and De Jong and Cole-who both did OK tonight) will buy in to this season. However, if any of them don't, I hope Arena has the guts to make use of that deep bench we have.
So the 2016 season is underway, and it looks like it should be exciting. It's both a rebuilding year, and a win-now year for the Galaxy, and this match was a pretty good microcosm of both the good and bad about that scenario. There is all of the uncertainty of a new group of players trying to figure out how to work together, and the excitement of seeing glimpses of success. Let's hope that, as it did in the second half of this match, the scale continues to tip towards the latter.