The LA Galaxy just can't seem to find their rhythm. Over the past five matches, they have drawn three at home and lost twice on the road, essentially dropping eight points from what is usually considered the formula for winning the Supporters' Shield. Not surprisingly, they continue to slide down the standings, finding themselves in 4th place in the west, but only two points ahead of the 8th place Portland Timbers.
There are clearly major problems with this team right now... but that doesn't mean that there weren't some positives to take away from this match.
- The shut-out: For starters, let's give the LA defense some credit for getting their third shutout of the season. For those of you keeping track, that's the second shut-out in the last three matches after getting only one clean sheet in the first twelve games of the season. There's no question that the defense is playing better. A.J. DeLaGarza, Dave Romney, Daniel Steres, and Jelle Van Damme all had fairly solid games in the back. There were some mistakes (and we'll get to those below), but Brian Rowe had, perhaps, his best performance of the year, with five big saves, including a number of one-on-ones. It seems that the young 'keeper has been unfazed by the late goal he gave up against Montreal a few games back, which is a very good sign going forward. If the defense can limit those scoring opportunities a little more, and Rowe can continue to play with such confidence, it could provide a great foundation for a late season run.
- Jack McBean: One of the big surprises of the night was seeing McBean in the starting line-up. the 21-year-old Galaxy II player has been tearing it up in the lower league (scoring twelve goals so far this year). After Alan Gordon's lack-luster performance last weekend, Bruce Arena apparently decided to give the youngster a shot on the first team, and he looked pretty good. His hold-up play in the middle third was very strong, as he looked pretty mobile, connected all of his passes in that part of the field, and won four fouls. He managed a couple of shots on the night, one of which was a dangerous strike from just outside the penalty area. He also had a nice key pass to setup a shot on goal by Nigel De Jong. Perhaps the best aspect of his game was the energy that he brought. In the absence of Gyasi Zardes, the team has looked a little flat. McBean worked very hard on both ends of the field, and consistently got back to help thwart potential counter-attacks by Colorado. It looks to me like he is a much better option than Gordon at this point.
- Return of injured players: Finally, after last weekend's match in Toronto, where we saw none of our highly-paid "difference makers," it was nice to see Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard get back on the pitch. Neither of them was stellar on the night, but both were lively and contributed to the attack. Gio had a few dangerous moments scattered throughout the match, but had some trouble finding the ball. None-the-less, the lethargy that we saw from him earlier in the season was gone, and he seemed to be making an effort to stay involved, which was great. Gerrard subbed on in the 61st minute, and immediately made the team more dangerous. Yeah... he had his characteristic dangerous give-aways, but he also had a couple of great runs through the midfield to pressure the Rapids back four. It was a performance to build on for both players.
- Defensive lapses: While LA got the shut-out, there were still plenty of cracks showing in the defense. If not for Rowe's heroics, the team could have easily given up 2-3 goals. That's not a sustainable model for getting good defensive results. Steres, in particular, got beat a couple of times on his side, leaving Rowe to snuff out dangerous opportunities. Of course, both of LA's starting wide defenders were out of this match, but that's not really a valid excuse for giving up those kinds of chances. The team has to be better.
- Lack of ideas: So yeah... we gave up some chances on the defensive side, but we got the shut-out. On the offensive side, we seemed to have a distinct lack of creativity that prevented us from having any really dangerous chances. There were a number of half-chances, but nothing that really looked like it was going to result in a goal. Overall, it seemed like our midfielders all held onto the ball far too long, which played right into the hands of the Colorado defenders. Sebastian Lletget, Dos Santos, and Emmanuel Boateng were the worst offenders. On several occasions you could see them get the ball with space, and wait for the defenders to close them down before they tried to make a pass, or dribble into a more dangerous position. As a result, there were often two or three defenders swarming around them, causing them to turn-over the ball. The way to beat Colorado's press is quick ball movement, and that simply wasn't happening.
- Lack of hustle: I already mentioned the quickness with which the Rapids players were shutting down LA's attackers, but the reality is that they were just out-hustling the Galaxy all over the field. Rapids coach, Pablo Mastroeni has done a great job getting his players to buy into their high-press system. It's actually a lot like the system that Arena brought into LA when he first arrived. They press as a team, and never give their opponents room to breath. This Galaxy team is stacked with skill players, but really seems to be lacking in the areas of hustle and heart. Getting this group of players to buy into the workman-like attitude that is required to win a championship in MLS may be Arena's biggest coaching test to date.
- Lack of shots: Yes, LA need to create more scoring opportunities, but they also need to simply take more shots. On too many occasions, rather than pulling the trigger and pressuring the Colorado 'keeper, players tried to make one too-many passes. This is part-and-parcel with the issue of dwelling on the ball too long, and wanting to be a "skill team" instead of a "hustle team." Sometimes you just have to let fly. De Jong actually did a good job lobbing in a few shots on goal, but he doesn't seem to be as good at that as Juninho, Sarvas, or even Jeff Larentowicz. It's all well-and-good to try to be patient and wait for the right moment to shoot, but when things aren't working, it might be worth it to mix-it-up. I'm not saying shoot at every possible moment, but letting fly from outside the box about 20% more of the time could actually open up some space in the middle by forcing opposing defenses to close down those shots.
Based on international tournament results, it looks like both Zardes and Robbie Keane will miss at least a couple more games before being available for the LA attack. Their return should address some of these issues. If things go well, LA could be set up for a strong run in the second half of the season, having sorted out their early-season defensive woes, and reclaimed their offensive prowess with the return of their strike force.
However, it's hard not to be a little pessimistic based on recent performances. With the depth and skill of this team, they should be more competitive than they have been.