Things are looking up for the LA Galaxy. They got their third win and third shut-out in a row. They have climbed to third place in the Supporters' Shield race, and third place in the Western Conference. They have stretched their league-leading goal differential to +14; as good as the next two best teams combined (Colorado +8 and Philidelphia +6). The team is playing tough, winning soccer at the moment. Let's talk about that, as well as what might possibly go wrong.
Giovani dos Santos: For my money, the enigmatic little Mexican midfielder was LA's man of the match. He didn't show up on the scoreboard, but he played with a level of intensity and commitment that surpassed any previous performance for LA. He constantly harassed Houston's midfield, creating turnovers and recovering the ball seven times. He also did what he does best, providing key passes for exactly half (four out of eight) of the team's shots. Bruce Arena seems to really be getting the best out of him.
Early in the season, he often looked lost and dis-spirited when he wasn't scoring or assisting goals. It seems that he has improved steadily over the past two months, learning to keep his head up and work through those dry spells that all players experience. Let's hope he can continue this trend.
Gyasi Zardes: Focus and work ethic has never been Zardes' problem, as he has always been willing to go the extra mile. He never seems to get to high or too low on the field, rarely complains to the ref when calls don't go his way, and he's not afraid to sacrifice personal glory and do the little things that help the team win games. He's become a bit of a talisman for the team. When one of his teammates needs to relieve pressure, they send the ball in Gyasi's direction, and the young winger/forward runs it down and, more often than not, comes away with possession.
In this match, he did a great job playing the role a target winger. He stays wide, works hard defensively, makes slashing runs through the midfield, but also plays the role of the hold-up player. He receives the ball with his back to goal, and and dishes it off to his teammates, maintaining possession and helping to transition from defense to the attack.
While he only had one key pass on the night, Zardes barely missed connecting with other attacking players on a number of other occasions that created extremely dangerous scoring opportunities. He also did a great job stretching the defense with his speed late in the match. He's a fun player to watch at this point in his career, and he just keeps getting better.
Team Defending: Of course, I can't talk about this match without appreciating how his group of players have shored up their defense. The team is currently playing very cohesive and effective defense. Houston are one of the worst teams in the league, but LA did a very good job harassing them in the midfield and not giving them any good scoring opportunities in the penalty box.
The best part of all of this is the degree that the the LA's players seem to have bought into this philosophy as a unit. As I mentioned above, t was great to see Gio flying around out there, but Zardes was doing the same, and you could see the commitment from Jeff Lawrentowicz, The defensive back four was cohesive and covered for one another. Daniel Steres looked particularly solid with nine clearances, four recoveries, and four interceptions on the night. Brian Rowe in the goal, while not needing to make any jaw-dropping saves, looks to be gaining confidence with every match, organizing the guys in front of him, and not giving up any loose balls or rebounds.
On the whole, the squad is starting to look like they have the potential to play championship-caliber defense.
Controlling the match: While the score and the stats may not reflect it, LA seemed to be truly in control of this match. They were never really bothered by Houston's attack, and they did a pretty good job of being patient in the attack; pinging the ball around on the defensive side, and then going for the jugular when they saw an opening. Watching the game, I got the sense that just about everything was going to plan.
I say "just about everything", because there were clearly some things that still need improvement.
Missed Opportunities: Robbie Keane, while creating plenty of chances, had an uncharacteristically poor night finishing his them. The missed penalty early in the match is the obvious example, but he also seemed to be just off on his runs, his touch, and his communication with his teammates. He wasn't the only one either. Gio had a good look on a header that went straight to the 'keeper. Zardes had another, less than six yards from the goal mouth, that he sent over the crossbar.
When the goal finally came for LA, it was actually on a play that looked like it was going to be another lost opportunity, as Keane got behind the defense, but then failed to beat the goalkeeper with an attempted nutmeg. Luckily the ball pinged out to a hard-charging Steven Gerrard, who calmly slotted it home past the retreating Houston defender.
Had LA been more clinical, this could well have been a blow-out victory. However, it's nice to see that the team can get wins when not playing at their best. In the first third of the season, or so, this team may well have folded and given up a late goal, so it's good to see them doing what it takes to get the points rather than dropping their heads when things don't go their way.
Predictable attacking patterns: In spite of all that, the team still needs to create more chances. One of their biggest problems has been how predictable they are moving forward. The plan is to get the ball to one of the skill guys, often by by-passing the midfield and trying to play as directly as possible. Most of the time it looks like this: pass the ball around in the back, try to work it to Jelle Van Damme or Gerrard , have them launch it over the top to Keane, Zardes, or occasionally Gio (or Emmanual Boateng when he's on the pitch), and then let one of these guys make a spectacular play.
In the past, the team could play this way with guys like David Beckham, Marcelo Sarvas, and Juninho launching in the passes, and Landon Donovan or Keane finishing it off. However, they could also play quick combination play through the midfield and pass the ball into the goal, or counter-attack with lethal precision. We're not seeing that level of flexibility from this squad's attackers, and that's worrying. There were points in this match, where the team seemed to run out of ideas. There may come a day in the playoffs when just getting it to the skill guys and letting them make something happen will not be enough. That makes me nervous.
Late substitutions: I mentioned this last week, and it was even worse this week. I don't understand why Arena is so slow to make his substitutions. This team has unprecedented depth. Mike Magee was the first sub, and he came on for Gerrard in the 80th minute. Poor Sebastial Lletget, the second and final substitution on the night, didn't get in until the 89th minute.
After Houston made their first sub in the 60th minute, it seemed to me that LA's energy began dropping and their opponent was starting to generate chances. Gerrard looked tired to me (we'll get to that below), and I thought that bringing on Lletget or Boateng for him, and shifting Zardes up top would have made the team much more dangerous. I think the Magee sub was perfectly reasonable, but needed to happen earlier. Another option would have been to have Baggio Husidic (who had another quiet but solid match in central midfield) come out in the last five minutes or so, and slot in Magee or Lletget in the middle of the park.
While Arena is notorious for just letting his guys play, and work through the tough spots, I'm worried that eventually the lack of tactical substitutions will end up costing the team points.
The Gerrard enigma: As regular readers know, I have a love/hate relationship with Gerrard. He has the ability to make things happen for the team. He can spray the ball around like nobody's business, and he'll occasionally crop up in a key position and score a game-winning goal like he did tonight.
Unfortunately, at his advanced age, there are also some pretty gaping holes in his game. In about the 60th minute, it became pretty clear that he was getting fatigued. He wasn't helping his teammates out by showing for the ball anymore, and if a pass didn't come straight to his feet, he didn't seem to bother to try to get to it. When he did get the ball, his passes started to lack zip, and his decision-making seemed to go south, as he tried to force passes into dangerous positions, leading to turnovers and counter-attacks.
As I said above, I think he should have come off around the 60th minute. While he did a good job getting into position to score the goal, that play could have easily been made by Magee or Lletget, who are both good at getting into positions like that and have the composure in front of goal to put balls like that away.
There's no questions that, over the course of an entire game, the team is better in the attack when Stevie G is on the pitch. However, Arena needs to sacrifice other players to make up for his defensive liabilities. In an optimal world, Larentowicz and Nigel De Jong start paired in the midfield to cover defensively for him, Gerrard gets to roam around and hit Hollywood passes, and everyone is happy. But at this point I'm starting to wonder what the team would look like with the Keane and Gio duo, sans Gerrard.
Could they still be as dangerous without the defensive liability? It's hard to say, but his liabilities keep me up at night wondering. At the very least, as I mentioned above, I'd like to see him pulled from the match much earlier.