There are multiple ways to succeed in soccer. Tactics tend to be cyclical, with positions, formations and styles of play coming in and out of style over time.
But while the LA Galaxy tried a differential style in recent years, whether on purpose or out of habit, it didn’t work, and they need to join the rest of MLS in one vital aspect: Speed of play.
These days, MLS teams tend to play either a vertical style of soccer — that is, get the ball up to the attack as fast as possible — or they play possession soccer, or a combination of those approaches.
But possession soccer these days isn’t even really the “tiki-taka” style favored by the now-legendary FC Barcelona teams under Pep Guardiola. It’s faster, with teams aiming to increase the number of scoring chances they get over 90 minutes.
And here comes in the Galaxy. While the rest of the league has more or less adopted a faster style of play, whether it’s purely vertical, possession with speed behind it, or a combination of the two, LA have been stuck in the mud. This goes beyond Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s tenure as coach, although his Galaxy teams were among the very slowest in the league.
Why does speed of play matter? You can make a pretty useful basketball analogy here. In basketball, if a team walks the ball upcourt every possession, that gives the defense a chance to run back and set up. There’s no element of surprise if a team doesn’t quickly pass the ball around and upcourt, looking for open players and mismatches out of pure speed.
It’s the same general approach in soccer. A possession game is useful at times, even a slow one on occasion, but when your default approach is to always methodically pass the ball upfield, you give the opposing defense all the time they need to get back and sit in a low block. And it becomes very hard to break through low block defenses.
That’s why the vertical approach became so popular, because good teams were passing the ball to death and getting terrible scoring chances with defenses “parking the bus.” How do you avoid that scenario? You ping the ball up towards the opponent’s goal as fast as you can, to get there before the bus does.
With Toronto FC, new Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney was a big proponent of combining possession and vertical soccer, to considerable success. I expect a similar approach in LA, with Vanney looking in preseason like he wants his team to push the ball quickly upfield on the flanks, and then look for cutback opportunities or give-and-go passes in the box to put players in scoring positions.
So I think there will be a shift in approach under the new coach. Will it be carried out? Here’s where I have some questions.
One team that played a vertical/possession combination approach very effectively in 2020 was...LA Galaxy II. Yes, the Galaxy’s reserve team was absolutely lethal at pinging the ball around at real speed and trying to push the ball up as quickly as reasonably possible. I think the players who played under Junior Gonzalez in 2020 — Adam Saldaña, Jonathan Perez, and Jalen Neal, among others — will have a leg up in understanding how to play speedier soccer, although they will also have to cope with taking a step up in terms of facing MLS opposition now.
The concern for the first team is whether the veterans will revert to what they had been doing — slowly playing the ball and not showing any real tempo in possession — or if they can grow accustomed to playing at a faster pace. If they can, they’re likely to pick up results at a pretty good clip, and if they can’t, there’s going to be more growing pains for the season ahead.
Speeding up the play won’t fix all that has ailed the Galaxy in recent years, but their slow approach has certainly contributed to them being a consistently below-average team. Playing faster is a relatively easy adjustment and again, if it works, it could work quite well to make this latest rebuilding project actually successful this time around.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.