Coming off of an up-and-down match at home on Sunday, the LA Galaxy traveled across the country, and took on one of the best Eastern Conference teams after only two days of rest. Their opponents, the Philadelphia Union, were coming off a bye week, and were clearly rested and looking forward to taking their best shot against LA. On paper, this looked like one of the Galaxy's toughest matches in this young season, and I'm sure Bruce Arena will be happy with the 2-2 draw. However, he may well not be happy with the overall performance of his squad.
With that in mind, let's look at this match in a little more depth.
- Clinical finishing: There is really nothing more positive this season for the Galaxy than their ability to score goals. This team has quality at virtually every position. The guys who got the job done in this match were Robbie Rogers and Mike Magee . Rogers, not known for his finishing ability, calmly slotted home a left-footed shot from the right side of the penalty area after a beautiful build-up from Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos. Magee put LA in front early in the second half with a similarly flowing attack opening up space for him in the left side of the penalty box. Steven Gerrard got the assist with a nicely weighted pass that put him into the open space. The ability of the Galaxy to convert their chances at a high rate has been a hallmark for this squad, but this was a little ridiculous, with the team scoring two goals on only four shots. That's the definition of clinical.
- Tactical flexibility: For the second match in a row, we saw LA come out in a nominal 4-3-2-1 (or "Christmas Tree") formation. However, watching the actual positioning of players on the field, it was difficult to tell exactly where everyone was playing. Players clearly felt the freedom to move wherever the flow of the match took them. The front three, Gyasi Zardes, Keane, and Dos Santos, were particularly fluid, but at various times we saw Magee and Baggio Husidic covering for Gerrard in the middle of the pitch. Rogers and Ashley Cole supplied much of the width, but the team seemed to either try to work the ball through the middle of the park, or just bypass the midfield with passes over the top. Both of the backs were very active and even, at times, found themselves helping out with combination play in the center of the pitch, and even Jelle Van Damme and Leonardo felt some freedom to push forward into the attack at times. This is extremely uncharacteristic of an Arena-coached team. Bruce has been known to set up a 4-4-2 and tell his players to simply sit back in two banks of four and play solid defense. It's almost like the old coach has taken off the reigns, told his guys to play total football, and just try to outscore their opponents. We'll talk more about the down side of this below, but if he can get his players to actually learn each others' tendencies, and make this work, it could be very hard to shut down.
- The Gerrard connection: Make no mistake, Steven Gerrard had a very solid game for LA. While his lack of movement can hurt the team at times, he did a great job in this match connecting the defense to the attack. He seemed to limit the number of dangerous give-aways, and play more simple passes to keep possession for some decent stretches of the play. There's no question that when Jeff Larentowicz came on for him in the 73rd minute, the defense got a little stiffer, but the attack also looked less dangerous. This is what LA was hoping to get when they brought the Liverpool legend to town.
- Player rotation: Has LA played the same line-up on more than one occasion this season? I should look it up, but if they have, it hasn't happened much. In this match, Arena made the most of his squad's depth, starting six different players from Sunday's game in seven different positions (Rogers moved from left back to right back). Leonardo and Dan Kennedy were both back in the line-up after long absences, A.J. DeLaGarza got a rest, and the three man midfield was completely different. More than just the ability to bring players off the bench, the ability to ask players to play different roles for the team is remarkable. This may well be the deepest and most flexible squad in MLS history.
- Goals conceded: Let's not mince words. The Galaxy come out flat. They tend to give up easy goals in the first fifteen minutes of the match. The Union took advantage of that, scoring on a sloppy play just four minutes into the game. Gerrard failed to cover defensively, and Leonardo looked like he hadn't yet shaken off the rust from his long absence. The second goal was largely on Kennedy, as he spilled the ball after saving a shot from the corner. However, the zonal defending tactic on corners that LA has adopted of late seems to be fraught with weakness. On this particular instance, when the corner was whipped in, Union players were crashing the area and leaping from a running start, while LA players are trying to out-leap them from a stand-still. Anyone who has ever played a sport knows how that is going to end, and The Union were able to put a powerful shot on frame. LA needs to abandon the zonal corner defensive scheme. It just doesn't work.
- Chances conceded: Even worse than the goals conceded was the number of chances the team gave up. LA were out-shot 22-4. Not only that, but they were giving up really dangerous chances. If the Union players were more clinical, this would have been a blow-out. I think a lot of this is down to the formation change and asking Gerrard to anchor the defensive midfield without a central partner. I think when most people looked at the line-up card, they predicted that LA would give up lots of chances. However, as I mentioned above, the dynamic style of play that this lineup facilitated may be of long-term benefit to the team. The down side, of course, is that in the short term, it could get a little ugly. That ugliness was on full display for long stretches in this match.
- Poor touches: Despite the beautiful build-up play leading to both LA goals, for long stretches of this match LA's players looked like a bunch of guys who were just a little off their game. There were multiple missed traps, mishit passes, and poor decisions. With the exception of Gerrard, the team looked fatigued. As a matter of fact, I would say this is the worst that they have looked all season. Zardes, after having a great match on Sunday, couldn't seem to control the ball to save his life. Gio had a couple of bad touches where he simply seemed to lose focus, and Van Damme looked to be spraying the ball all over the field, as long as there was not an LA player there to receive it. The up-side is that, sooner or later, every team has a match like this. If LA can get a road draw under tough conditions like this, that bodes well for expected results when guys are just a little bit sharper.
- Hubris?: This is actually the negative that I'm most concerned about. There's no question that LA have an extremely talented squad. However, the lineup that Arena put on the field reminded me a little of the Ruud Gullit era with the Galaxy. For those of you that don't remember, that squad scored goals in bunches, but didn't defend, and often lost high-scoring matches. Could it be, that there is a little bit of arrogance in Bruce Arena's preparation for this match? Could it be that he thinks his guys are so good that they can get away with playing six attack-minded players, defending with only seven, not worrying too much about team shape, and still win the league? Would that be hubris? Time will tell.
The one thing that we know for sure is that this LA team has become a lot of fun to watch. That's a great change from early in the season, when we were seeing a team without much personality grinding out some results.
At this point I think it's pretty safe to say that if you are a Galaxy fan you should buckle up your seat-belt, because you're in for one hell of a ride this season.