The Galaxy continued their recent run of good form with a 2-1 victory in Portland (only their second in that venue). However, barring the first fifteen minutes of the match, it wasn't very easy on the eyes.
After scoring two quick goals, LA regressed to "Bruce ball" for much of the match: sitting deep and daring Portland to break them down. In the end, that was just enough to hang on for the victory.
So what went right, and what can be improved?
Glad you asked.
Road win: Over the past two years, wins on the road have been rare for this team. In 2015, they only managed to get full points twice in seventeen chances. LA has now accomplished that feat twice in a row. Their current four-match winning streak has included trips to Seattle, and now Portland. The win in Seattle was a nice one, but the Sounders, a team struggling to find their identity, are currently one of the bottom five teams in the league. Portland, on the other hand, are in the thick of the playoff race, and actually had not lost a match in more than two months, so it seems that the Galaxy have finally rediscovered their ability to win road matches. Let's hope the trend continues.
High-energy start: The key to this victory was the team's energy coming out of the gate. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, Galaxy players were flying around the field, pressuring the Timbers high, and going right at their opponents as soon as they got possession of the ball. Giovani Dos Santos, starting on the right wing, was particularly notable for his willingness to play physically. This change in his game that has come about over the course of this season would have been hard to imagine last year. However, it wasn't just Gio doing the pressing. Robbie Keane was at his best, buzzing around up top and making life tough on the Portland back line. Gyassi Zardes was also displaying his the high work-rate that we've come to expect from him, and Bruce Arena made the strategic decision to start Emmanuel Boateng on the left wing instead of Sebastial Lletget, which proved to be a great move, as Ema tortured the right side of the Timbers defense with his harassing defense and blazing speed in the attack.
There's no question that this level of energy could not be sustained throughout the match; especially on the road in a venue like Portland's Providence Park. However, the tactic of early pressure paid off in spades for LA, putting them in control of the match early on, and giving them the buffer they needed to hold on for the win.
More efficient finishing: To be clear, I'm not saying that the finishing was "more efficient" in this match than in the past. I'm saying it was more of the efficient finishing that we've seen from this team all season long. The Galaxy have scored on 16.4% of their shots this year: easily the best in MLS. Orlando are second, with 13.6%, followed by Montreal, only a fraction of a percentage behind them. The difference between 13.6% and 16.4% may not seem like a lot, but in reality it's a 20% gap.
The Galaxy have been one of the best finishing teams over the past three years (as far back as I ran the stats), and are the only team to finish a rate higher than 14% in that time period. Statistically, you would expect that degree of efficiency to decline a little through the rest of the season, as they regress towards their mean. However, if they can continue to put their chances away at this rate, they have a great chance to win some hardware this season as long as they can shut down their opponent.
Strong team defending: ...which is exactly what they did in this match. As much as I am annoyed by the ESPN broadcast team, they were right in pointing out what a great job LA was doing defending as a team. For the most part, players continued their high energy play throughout the match, but just restricted it to the defensive side of the ball, content to cling to their lead and do just enough to keep Portland from clawing all the way back from their two-goal deficit.
This is a hallmark of Arena's most successful teams: get a lead, and then absorb your opponent's pressure to hang on for the result. It is a learned skill that this group of players did not have down the stretch in 2015, and displayed unevenly in the first half of this season. The fact that they have become more adept at this dark art over the past couple months bodes well for the second half of the season, as well as the playoffs.
Too much deep defending: That said... I'm not sure my heart can take too many more games like this. Because of their willingness to sit deep and absorb pressure, the LA players sometimes seem to expose themselves to more danger than may be necessary. On the goal they did give up, both defensive midfielders (Jeff Larentowicz and Nigel de Jong, who did a good job on the day) pulled deep into their own penalty box to defend, leaving space at the top of the eighteen for Portland left-back Zarek Valentin to slip into, receive a layoff from Darlington Nagbe, and slot it home through a forest of defenders.
Granted, it was a low-percentage shot, as Valentin had to thread the ball through a lot of people. In addition, if dos Santos had tracked Valentin on the play instead of ball-watching, the Timbers defender likely would not have had time and space to pull the trigger. None the less, it demonstrated the danger of sitting so deep in your own defensive end: even if you give up only low percentage shots, eventually some of them will end up in the back of the net.
Too few shots: In addition to defending too deeply, it would have been nice to see LA create some more chances as Portland increased their attacking intensity. Yeah... efficiency in finishing your chances is nice, but the Galaxy have the fewest shots in MLS, and there's really no excuse for that. Players need to be a little more willing to pull the trigger when chances arrive. They don't always need to pass the ball into the goal.
Both Keane and Zardes had a couple nice volleyed shots off of long balls over-the-top, which are tough, low-percentage shots, so it's not like they aren't taking chances at all. It's just that there have been times in virtually every match this season when LA has had control of the ball in the attacking third and were looking for the perfect shot instead of just testing the 'keeper. It would be nice to see a few more mid-range shots from our mid-fielders to soften up the defense.
Failure to hold the ball: Following on a theme here, when holding a lead in the match, it would be great to see this team maintain some possession. The safest way to prevent your opponent from scoring is to not let them have the ball. The Galaxy has one of the most technically proficient rosters in MLS, and yet they only had 41% of possession in this match.
It wasn't just that they couldn't hold on to the ball. They didn't even try.
For much of the second half, they were clearing the ball into space in the midfield rather than trying to work it to their forwards. I'm not asking them to play tiki-taco here. I'm just saying that when you boot the ball forward, try to get it on the same side of the field as your striker. Give your team a chance to breath instead of just handing the ball back to your opponent.
Of course, as fans, we are almost never happy with the team. We want our club to be dominant. We want other teams to believe that they will have no hope against our guys. In MLS, that's simply not realistic.
So, in spite of my frustration with the style of play in this match, it may prove that, in the long run, Arena is doing exactly what he needs to in order to prepare this group of players to win a trophy or two this season.