Last October when the LA Galaxy season evaporated in the frigid Seattle air, Bruce Arena, Chris Klein and company had some work to do.
With the arrivals of Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and Mexican international Giovani dos Santos last summer, the Galaxy had put together a supremely talented starting eleven, possibly the best in MLS history.
What LA didn't have was depth, or a plan B. Once teams began to lock down on Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos, the Galaxy were unable to adjust, and the roster wasn't deep enough for LA to make the necessary changes.
For the Galaxy to enjoy success next year, there had to be a shake-up.
The Galaxy's struggles at the end of last season were not necessarily a failure by LA, but emblematic of a more mature MLS, a league where the collective IQ of the managers has been raised. For example, Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls using analytics to execute their high press defense in New York.
With advanced resources, better scouting, and the improved ability to prepare for teams, it has become more difficult for teams to play predictably and expect results. The Vancouver Whitecaps, Columbus Crew, Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls are just some teams with defined, one-dimensional styles of play that have struggled mightily at times this year.
Did the Galaxy suffer from sticking to a rigid 4-4-2 formation? It's entirely possible.
And there's the roster itself. Building a successful squad in MLS has always been a tricky proposition, and involves getting a lot right: Finding the right DPs, balancing the team with veterans as well as up-and-coming players, landing the occasional shrewd signing, and increasingly, relying on youth and academy talent.
LA got most of this right, landing a genuine superstar in Giovani dos Santos as well as Steven Gerrard and Sebastian Lletget. Dave Romney was another pleasant surprise, making the jump from Los Dos and sliding into the back four with ease.
And yet, the Galaxy's only consistent offensive weapon off the bench was Alan Gordon. As effective as Gordo can be at times, once the attack started to falter, the super-sub was often LA's last hope.
Bruce knew this. So the organization rolled up their sleeves and spent the off-season selling the LA lifestyle and the prestige of playing for the Galaxy to acquire the best possible talent and those best suited to address the weaknesses on the roster.
Center back Jelle Van Damme has helped stabilize the Galaxy defense, featuring the physical presence of his predecessor in Omar Gonzalez and the ability to play out of the back, at a fraction of the price. Emmanuel Boateng brings what the Galaxy have lacked on the wings for some time: speed. Mike Magee has picked up right where he left off, scoring goals and thriving in the final third. And before a controversial tackle on Darlington Nagbe that earned the Dutch international a three-match suspension, Nigel de Jong was quietly impressing in the center of the pitch.
Why did the Galaxy allocate a decent chunk of salary cap funds to sign Ashley Cole (a move no one liked at the time), when they had the position covered with Robbie Rogers? Now we know.
Like a savvy investor spreading the risk by diversifying his stock portfolio, Arena is betting that if a few of his investments don't perform, the others will pick up the slack. While fans and pundits questioned if Arena was taking a step backwards by signing older experienced players, he was actually assembling a war chest.
Here are just a few reasons why this 2016 roster has the potential to be lethal throughout the season.
The Galaxy are more unpredictable
Let's take a look back at LA's demolishing of Real Salt Lake a few weeks ago.
Cassar says that inclusion of Boateng over Lletget threw a wrench in RSL's game plan tonight. #LAGalaxy#LAvRSL— Adam Serrano (@LAGalaxyInsider) April 24, 2016
After Sebastian Lletget suffered a knock in training, Bruce quietly replaced the winger with Emmanuel Boateng, and the Ghanaian's pace gave the RSL backline fits all night long.
Head coach Jeff Cassar appeared genuinely flummoxed by the Galaxy's lineup post-game, explaining that he made the necessary changes at halftime, but by then the score was 4-1 and the game was out of reach.
Boateng isn't the only attacker Bruce has utilized in different positions. Mike Magee has been another versatile jack-of-all-trades, popping up as a striker, a winger, and most recently, a defensive midfielder vs. Sporting Kansas City.
If you're an opposing MLS coach, how do you properly prepare for LA?
LA are more dynamic
Bruce doesn't like to talk about formations. When pressed by Four Four Two writer Scott French to describe their success at mixing things up, Arena had this to say.
"I think people overdo it with formations," he said. "It's how those 11 players play on the field. The formation fluctuates from minute to minute in the game. Everyone gets excited about this formation or that formation. It's really the way the players work together and make things work.
"We don't have a set formation. It starts on a piece of paper and then it evolves over the game, based on the kind of game we're playing and the kind of issues that are on the field."
Not that I blame Bruce. No point in giving away what you're thinking to the Jeff Cassars of the world, and Bruce can evade questions with the best of them, packing dry wit and a Brooklyn accent.
But once LA were eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League, Bruce has the freedom to tweak the lineup and discover the best way to utilize Giovani dos Santos.
After opening the season with a 4-2-3-1 and Gio up top, the Galaxy used the familiar 4-4-2 for a few games before reverting to the 4-2-3-1 again with Zardes up top, then a 4-3-3 Christmas tree formation vs. the Revs to accommodate a healthy Robbie Keane.
It won't be the last formation switch Galaxy fans should expect this year. With so many interchangeable attacking weapons to choose from, Bruce has the luxury of changing the look of the Galaxy offense when necessary.
The Galaxy are getting results
LA's home opener vs. D.C. United, the 4-1 blowout in Houston last month and road draw vs. Sporting KC a few weeks ago all have something in common: The Galaxy didn't play particularly well, and yet they were able to get the result.
After winning Sunday's shootout vs. the Revs, the Galaxy are now 5-1-3 so far this young MLS season, including a respectable 1-2-1 record on the road. This is despite Gio missing a few games, Robbie Keane's absence during April and a number of players nursing injuries at one point.
Why have LA enjoyed early success? Their increasingly dynamic, unpredictable play has made it tougher for teams to lock down on their attack. And even when LA aren't playing well, the raw explosiveness of the Galaxy attack is enough to turn a game on a dime, as we saw in Kansas City when the Galaxy when throughly outplayed, but one turnover and eight seconds later, dos Santos is chipping into an empty net.
For the Galaxy to be racking up the points early and getting results on the road despite key injuries is a very telling sign.
Now that the Galaxy offense is starting to click, there's been a lot of speculation about what happens when the summer tournaments arrive, and whether LA can keep up the offensive production.
The fundamental problem this speculation ignores is that there's always going to be a "What if?". This 2016 MLS season has too many confounding variables. Gyasi could get burned out at Copa America. Keane has to come back from the Euros intact. Factor in a roster with lots of players wrong side of 30, and its difficult to foresee the Galaxy making it to the end of a grueling season with everyone 100% healthy and available.
And even if everything goes according to plan, teams will eventually figure out how to defend the Galaxy attack, then Arena is going to need another plan B. The question isn't "What if?", but "When it happens, can LA adjust?"
The answer is yes. Bruce not only has the roster to do so this year, but a willingness to tweak the lineup and keep other teams guessing.
By learning from the lessons of 2015 and rebuilding the roster to compete in a constantly changing league, Bruce has the ship firmly steered in the right direction this season.