As difficult as it may be to believe, the LA Galaxy have already put more than 20% of the 2016 MLS season behind them. Perhaps equally difficult to believe is that even after a turbulent off-season and an injury-plagued first seven matches, the Galaxy are near the top of the Western Conference, tied with Colorado and Salt Lake with two points per match. In addition, the team has scored more goals than any other squad in the league (17), and has a +10 goal differential, that is more than twice that of the next closest team (Colorado, with a +4).
Needless to say, tonight's 5-2 thrashing of previously undefeated Real Salt Lake accounts for a good bit of that differential in this young season. Let's talk about what went right in this match, as well as what we (as neurotic fans) still have to worry about.
- Scoring in bunches: Boy was this a fun match to watch. LA came out of the gate fast and, despite some early slip-ups (we'll talk about that below), continued to pickup speed throughout the first half. The Galaxy created chance after chance from a myriad of players. Goalscorers on the night included Gyasi Zardes, Emmanuel Boateng, Mike Magee, Giovanni dos Santos, and Steven Gerrard. Five guys, five goals. Zardes, Boateng (2), Magee and dos Santos all logged assists as well--as did Baggio Husidic. In other words, just about everyone was in on the scoring tonight. Not only that, but it could have been even better, with Gerrard missing an early penalty kick which was earned when dos Santos was pulled down in the box trying to reach a beautiful cross by A.J. DeLaGarza. There were other chances as well. Why?
- Playing direct: Do you remember Tiki Taco? Me neither. Bruce Arena had clearly done his homework for this match. For the 2016 season RSL has implemented a 4-3-3 lineup and played a dangerously high back line. For all intents and purposes, it looked like Arena had told his players to challenge that high line by bypassing the midfield, and sending balls over the top to dos Santos, Zardes, and (most effectively) Boateng. The Ghanaian speedster had, by far, his best performance in a Galaxy kit, terrifying the Salt Lake back line, and using his pace and persistence to stretch the field and create opportunity after opportunity. It was exciting to see the tactical shift to more direct play, after LA had chosen to high press their opponents in the past few games and tried to create most of their chances off of turnovers. That kind of tactical flexibility should help the team going forward.
- Winning individual battles: Of course, despite this tactical shift, none of the goals would have come if LA had not been winning the individual battles (particularly in the first half). I already mentioned Boateng above, and there's no question that his domination of Tony Beltran was the most striking example of this. However, Zardes opened the scoring with a brilliant individual goal, He took a simple feed from Husidic amid three RSL defenders and forty yards out. He dribbled to the top of the box, changing direction a couple of times, and then curled a shot into the far post of Nick Rimando's goal. He essentially made something out of nothing. However, that wasn't even the prettiest goal of the night. That award goes to Dos Santos' 45th minute goal, where Magee sent a ball into space on the left-hand side, Boateng ran on to it, beat Beltran in the box, and poked the ball back to Gio, who took a touch, and then chipped Rimando from only about fifteen yards out. It was a sublime piece of skill. It was, actually, exactly what he was brought into LA to do. That may be something to remember when Gio hits his next dry spell (which will come). He has the ability to score goals that not many other players in this league can score.
- Defending intelligently: To compliment the individual brilliance that led to the outburst of goals in this match, the Galaxy played a very smart brand of team defense. This was particularly evident in the second half of the match when, sporting a 4-1 advantage, the team clearly settled back and dared RSL to beat them. While Salt Lake did manage to pull back a goal on a penalty kick, they really didn't seem to generate many dangerous chances. It was classic bend-but-don't-break defending. The team sat deep, packed the middle, and forced RSL to take long shots from outside the penalty area or work the ball wide and send in hopeful crosses. Daniel Steres and Jelle Van Damme both did an excellent job winning balls in the air. Steres got caught with his hand on Yura Movsisyan's arm which led to the PK. However it's tough to blame the rookie defender for that play, which is one that's made several times in every match. Over-all, it was a solid performance.
- Giving up an early goal again: Last week, LA gave up a goal off of a corner kick in the opening minute of the match. This week the team dominated play early only to fall behind on a couple of mental errors leading to RSL's first shot of the match. Brian Rowe (who was a little shaky on the night) took an extremely poor touch on a back pass and ended up giving away a deep throw-in. This led to a cross into the box where DeLaGarza lost his man and failed to get a head on the ball. The result was another 1-0 deficit. This after the missed Gerrard PK. You can only dig yourself a hole so many times before it comes back to bite you. The team needs to eliminate these early errors.
- The same mistakes: Speaking of errors, despite the strong over-all performances on the night, many of the same mistakes that I've mentioned in past matches were in evidence here. For instance, Boateng and Gerrard both had a number of dangerous give-aways in the midfield. Many of these were early in the match when RSL was trying to stay compact, so they didn't jump on them the way other teams may. This team has got to get better in possession if they don't want to give up more bad goals. I suspect a team like Dallas would really punish some of the mistakes we saw early in the match tonight.
- Missed connections: In addition to eliminating give-aways in bad spots of the pitch, LA could improve their possession play with a little better understanding between teammates. I know I've mentioned this in the past, but both Gio and Gerrard still don't really seem to be on the same page with their teammates. Because of the success of direct play in this match, it was less important than it has been in others. However, there's no reason to believe that this can't be worked out. It's just a question of when Gerrard will start to better anticipate his teammates' movement off the ball, rather than just missing their runs. Let's hope things come together soon.
- Yellow card Jelle: We all knew this was coming. From the time the Galaxy introduced Van Damme wearing a t-shirt that said "I bite back," there was little question that he would eventually get in some sort of disciplinary trouble. With the yellow card he picked up tonight, he is now one more yellow away from an automatic suspension. LA have been lucky (or maybe I should say "well prepared") with their defensive depth this year, but the team would prefer to have everyone available. With Leonardo still missing due to injury, it would be nice if Van Damme could reign in his more violent tendencies for a few matches. From what we've seen, though, I suspect he'll miss a match sometime in the next few weeks.
So it was another week, another win for LA tonight. I've gotta admit, it's a lot of fun writing these pieces after matches like this one. I'm hoping to see more of them.