The LA Galaxy managed to shut out their opponents for only the second time of the 2016 season. Unfortunately, they also failed to score in what was, perhaps, one of the worst attacking performances in the history of the club. As a result, the team continued to drop points at home, which doesn't bode well. As A.J. DeLaGarza said in his post-game interview, "These ties are starting to add up, and you hope it doesn't cost you later in the season."
However, that doesn't mean that there aren't some positives to talk about from this match, so let's start with them.
- Shut-out: After giving up thirteen goals in their last eight matches, this LA squad desperately needed get their defensive act together. While not perfect, this was a fairly complete defensive performance for the team. They gave up fifteen shots on the night, but only a couple of them were particularly dangerous, and the team shape was easily better than it has been in any other match this season. It should have been, as Bruce Arena fielded a very defensive-minded line-up, with Nigel De Jong partnered with Jeff Larentowicz patrolling the center of the pitch. Baggio Husidic and Sebastian Lletget filled out the midfield, meaning that three of the four mids were guys who are more known for their defensive play than their attacks. It's not a coincidence that both shut-outs have come when Steven Gerrard (out with a soft-tissue injury) was not playing.
- DeLaGarza and Daniel Steres: AJ and Steres started together as central defenders for the first time this season, and they looked very solid.They were more cohesive than Steres and Jelle Van Damme have been. They made very few mental errors, and they were strong on the ball, completing 93 and 84 percent of their passes, respectively. DeLeGarza has been on the bench for the past three matches, and you've got to wonder how Arena can keep him off the field. He seems to make the team significantly better. While Van Damme has been a solid addition to the roster this year, his tendency to get forward can expose the back line at times. This, coupled with Gerrard's lack of mobility, has often made defensive shape unreliable. Arena needs to find a way to get his best players on the field and replicate this type of defensive performance.
- Holding on to the ball: The Galaxy did a good job maintaining possession in this match, with 63%, despite periods of high pressure from SKC. A big part of this was the solid passing of the center backs (mentioned above), but De Jong was also very good on the night, leading the team with a staggering 106 passes, 83% of which found his teammates. In addition, AJ, Steres, and De Jong all did a decent job completing long passes, going 7/10, 7/14, and 12/20. The team definitely did a good job moving the ball around in the midfield, and a decent job working it into the attacking half. Further up field? We'll get to that below.
- A confident Brian Rowe: After last weekend's match, I raised the issue of whether or not Rowe could recover from his disappointing late-game error. He seemed to allay those fears in this match. The young LA goalkeeper looked confident and strong on the night. As Arena said after the match, "He had a couple good saves." More importantly, he was decisive coming off his line, and did a good job controlling his box. His defense seemed to have plenty of confidence in him as well. Let's hope that this continues, and he can avoid any other major gaffes for the remainder of the season.
- One shot: That is, only a single shot in the entire match (insert shocked emoji here). This LA Galaxy squad is leading MLS in scoring, averaging more than two goals per game, and yet... The team could not even manage that many shots on the night. After the match, Arena specifically called out his two forwards, Mike Magee and Giovani dos Santos, whom he said "want to pass the ball into the goal instead of shoot." However, Lletget was equally culpable, often carrying the ball for one touch too many, allowing the SKC defense to get back in position, or their midfield to shut him down from behind. The mentality to put the ball on frame was really lacking, and as the saying goes, "If you don't shoot, you can't score." That said, LA was a little unlucky, as Magee was incorrectly called offside on a play that may well have led to a Lletget goal. However, that doesn't excuse the inability to create more scoring opportunities.
- No penetration: In addition to the lack of shooting, LA did a poor job getting the ball into the attacking third. While LA had 245 more passes on the night than their opponents, they actually had nine fewer passes in their attacking third. While 40% of SKC's passes came in their attacking third, the Galaxy only managed to get 21% of theirs in that danger zone. In other words, the LA attack was not dynamic enough to find those spaces in the SKC defense, and move the ball through them. As Arena said, you have to give Sporting credit for their strong defensive play, but there's no way (with the quality this LA team has) that they should be that poor at getting the ball into dangerous positions.
- Physically intimidated: One of the reasons that LA were unable to find those dangerous spots was that they did a poor job handling SKC's physical play. This is an aspect of the game that can be tough to deal with, and can also be highly variable depending on how the referee calls the match. From the very beginning, you could tell the referee on the night (Hilario Grajeda) was going to "let the players play." This meant that SKC was allowed to kick and push LA players throughout the match. This type of tactic is not uncommon. The Galaxy have used it at various times, and they need to get better at dealing with it. Sure, if the referee had called the game a little more tightly in the the first half, it's likely that things would have opened up a little more on the attacking side of the ball for LA. However, the players need to do a better job of moving the ball more quickly and drawing some cards for opposing players.Otherwise it's just going to get worse as the season progresses.
- Dropping points at home: As DeLaGarza said in his post-game interview, these draws are starting to add up. While LA have lost fewer matches than any other team in MLS, they need to start winning more at home, or the season is going to start to look a little grim. They have the quality to do so, but they just need to pull things together.
Over-all, I actually find this result strangely comforting. I feel like getting the defense sorted out is the first step to making this a championship team. Strong defense has always been a hallmark of Arena-coached squads, and I can't help but feel that if the team can improve on the defensive side of the ball, the goals will come.
In the wake of this ugly performance, that's a reason for optimism.