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LA Galaxy 2021 Player Postmortem: Niko Hämäläinen

El Trafico sojourner played heavy minutes after arrival.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at LA Galaxy Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Niko Hämäläinen is the answer to the following trivia question: Who is the first player to play for both the LA Galaxy and LAFC?

After a cup of coffee with LAFC in 2019, Hämäläinen was a surprise addition on loan in the summer window by the Galaxy. Certainly the reasons made sense: Jorge Villafaña had been playing heavy minutes at left back, and the veteran seemed like he might break down sooner or later, which he did.

Hämäläinen fit one of LA’s methods of finding players to add to the squad, as an American-born player whose soccer training came abroad. Hämäläinen was born in Florida and is a Finnish international, and taking him on loan from Queens Park Rangers was a sensible extended audition for a domestic player.

The 24-year-old made his debut for LA in a rousing win over Minnesota United in August, and Greg Vanney gave him major minutes with Villafaña out injured and Danny Acosta unable to break into the lineup.

Here are Hämäläinen’s stats with the Galaxy:

Niko Hämäläinen 2021 LA Galaxy Statistics

2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS 14 12 1,146 0 0 7 1 0 0

I think Hämäläinen’s trajectory with the Galaxy followed the club’s season at large. He started pretty well, and looked fresh despite kind of jumping into the fray right in the middle of it all. But over time, the defense imploded as the whole team hit a wall, and Hämäläinen was no stranger to that trend. It seemed pretty clear as the season wore down that opposing teams highlighted his penchant for losing his man and seemed to go after him, which in turn compounded the mistakes.

Hämäläinen is a modern fullback, which is to say he’s an attacking fullback. I think he can enter the attacking phase and either help in the buildup or set up goals, but he’s not found the right balance in an MLS context. Given the relative parity around the league, bombing forward has to be done prudently unless there’s enough cover for an attacking fullback’s forays upfield. LA were struggling to defend well in the back half of the season, and so they couldn’t afford to see both Hämäläinen and Julian Araujo push up all the time. Araujo, however, had the defend/attack balance down, while Hämäläinen didn’t.

Given the defensive struggles of the team, I don’t want to write off Hämäläinen in MLS, but it really didn’t seem like the right fit. He barely played in a very short stint at LAFC, but in considerable minutes he played like a reserve being thrust into starter’s minutes, which is what it was. I don’t want to say he’s not good enough for MLS, but it may be the case that this league just isn’t the right spot for him. He’s been in the loan churn at QPR while getting some minutes, and the English Championship sure is a demanding league. But I think above all, he hasn’t found the right situation to really thrive just yet. When he does, perhaps he can fully blossom.

The Galaxy have already said goodbye to Hämäläinen with his loan ending officially at the end of the month. I don’t expect him back, and while a domestic left back with a European pedigree may always prove tempting to an MLS side, I think it’s unlikely he’ll be returning to the Galaxy in the future. We’ll see where his career path takes him.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.