On the same day that MLS announced a three match suspension for Nigel De Jong, the LA Galay went into Houston and came away with three points. It was a surprising result considering the Galaxy's poor recent road form, and the fact that they've always had a tough time with the franchise from Houston. In addition, LA's designated players have been under-performing when on the pitch, and were just returning from injury.
In spite of all that, the team played well, and ended up coasting to a 4-1 victory.
- The designated players step up: If you've read this column regularly this year, you know that I've been pretty down on both Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard . I thought that the team had looked better without them than with them. The other players seemed to defer to their high-paid colleagues, and looked disjointed and uninspired. When Dos Santos came back last week, he seemed to continue this trend, and I was dreading seeing Gerrard return from injury to replace the consistency and energy of De Jong. However both Dos Santos and Gerrard really stepped up in this match. Gerrard was much more solid defensively, minimized his mistakes in possession, and continued to set up scoring opportunities for his teammates. Gio did what he was brought in to do: he scored goals. He finished his chances, and he scared the defense with his quickness and tricky footwork. More importantly, you could see his energy level go up and his confidence level rise after he scored the first goal. Gio is clearly a player who needs to continue to build on his success and be comfortable to perform well. Let's hope that Bruce Arena can manage that, and allow the enigmatic Mexican star to realize his potential in LA.
- Continued high press: I've mentioned the last couple of weeks how much I liked the way that the Galaxy were pressing their opponents. That continued in this match, and was very effective. Gio's first goal, while not coming off of the high press, did result from Sebastian Lletget (who had yet another strong game in the attack) making a tough play to battle two Houston players for a "hopeful" ball from Ashley Cole over the top. Da Boy's fight did just enough to allow the ball to bounce free putting Gio behind the defense for an easy one-on-one with the Houston goalkeeper. More importantly, even as the game progressed, LA never allowed the Houston players to get comfortable on the ball. They never really sat back in a defensive shell, continuing to press, and forcing the Dynamo into completing only 76% of their passes. LA's players seem to be more comfortable when pressing their opponents. It seems to keep them more focused on defense, and improve their movement off the ball in the attack. Let's hope it continues.
- Sharpness in both boxes: I've mentioned this before, but often the difference between the winners and the losers is the ability to convert your chances and thwart your opponent's chances. It seems like a simple truism, but it is hard to execute consistently. With the exception of the opening goal, the Galaxy executed pretty well today. Putting up four goals before the game was out of hand was a great demonstration of what the team can do when their players are sharp. This despite Mike Magee missing a great chance, Gerrard and Lletget both putting good shots just wide, and A.J. DeLaGarza firing a powerful shot right at the Dynamo keeper. The team was even better on defense, constantly shutting down a Houston attack that leads the league in goals scored. LA's defense consistently did the little things to prevent Dynamo players from getting clean looks at goal. For example, Daniel Steres keeping a body on a slashing Giles Barnes to force his shot high, Cole forcing Erik "Cubo" Torres to the endline and then blocking his shot, and finally Jelle Van Damme executing a beautiful hooking slide tackle in the box to prevent Torres from even getting off a shot. Arena seems to have gotten LA's players to more regularly do all these little things that tip the scales in their favor, and that bodes well for the future.
- Win on the road: In 2015, the Galaxy won only two matches on the road. In 2014, they were better (winning five road games), but still not great. Not only that, but they haven't even looked competitive on the road. They've played listlessly, and even a little scared. Over the past couple of years you could tell whether LA were playing at home or on the road just by watching five minutes of the match. That's why it's so great to see the difference in the team over the last two road matches. In both the 0-0 draw in Vancouver two weeks ago, and this match, the they came out pushing their opponents; imposing their will on the match. They looked more confident, even after going down a goal. They looked like they believed that they could win. If they can continue this form, the results may not always be there, but the record should end up being much better than we've seen in the recent past.
- Giving up an early goal: Obviously the one exception to LA's sharpness on the defensive end of the field was the early goal conceded off of a set play. The Dynamo took a short corner, worked the ball to a good spot outside the top corner of the penalty box, and then swung in a cross to two unmarked players at the far post. There was no pressure on the cross, and the Galaxy defenders seemed to be more concerned with pushing up field to actually marking attackers. It was almost like the team wasn't quite ready to play yet. Despite the fact that they responded well, this team cannot afford to come out flat like that. We'll see over the coming weeks if this is a continued cause for concern.
- Poor possession play: Despite the Galaxy's sharp play in both penalty boxes, they were pretty mediocre in the rest of the field. Players' touches seemed to be a little off, they only completed 69% of their passes, and as a result they only maintained possession for about 42% of the match. Granted, much of that possession disparity came after they had established a three goal lead. However, it would have been nice to see the team hold on the ball a little better in order to give players a little more time to rest. This is definitely something that can be improved upon.
To be honest, despite the negatives listed above, this was one of the best performances by this LA squad in some time. They took on a very good Houston team, on the road, with a mix of guys that had never lined up like this together. Despite that, for the first time since the middle of 2015, it's starting to feel like the team may be crafting an identity that they can hang their hat on. This was a game that felt like LA were in control. It was a style of play that felt like it could be successfully replicated by this group of players, and could result in a string of good results, even when the shots aren't going in quite as much as they were tonight.
If that's true, this team could start becoming a lot more fun to watch.