What Are They All About? LA Galaxy
A win is a win. This past weekend the Chicago Fire secured all three points from a match for the first time in the 2018 campaign. The 1-0 victory over Columbus was achieved in an unorthodox fashion—the Crew out shot Chicago 21-5, out possessed them 65-35, and completed over 200 more passes—but moved the home side into ninth place in the East. Although the players headed into the tunnel looking as if they had lost and Veljko Paunovic was less than enthusiastic meeting the press, the result was enough to push them to within touching distance of being above the red line at this early stage in the season. The start to the season has been less than ideal both on the pitch and in the transfer window, but this weekend’s encounter with the LA Galaxy (2:30 CT at Toyota Park) could mark a turning point in their fortunes.
The Galaxy enter the fixture riding their own roller coaster of emotion. Last season saw one of MLS’ most prolific franchises finish dead last in the standings despite significant investment in the club. Head coach Curt Onalfo was let go in July because of the state of the first team and Sigi Schmid was given the reigns with just under ten matches to go. Fortunes did not change much but Schmid’s second stint with the Galaxy resulted in a change of system and a revitalization of the players’ belief. The results are there to see for everyone this season as LA currently sits in third in the West with a star-studded line up and sites aimed at silverware.
However, five matches into the season is hardly long enough to start erecting statues or sounding trumpets of doom and this fixture could be a turning point for either side. A second consecutive loss for LA could see them fall as far as eighth, while back to back victories for Chicago could put them into sixth. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
LA Form Guide: L-W-D-L-W
Previous Result: A 2-0 home loss to Sporting Kansas City.
Formation: 4-3-2-1; Bingham; Feltscher, Steres, Skjelvik, Cole; Kitchen, dos Santos; Pontius, Alessandrini, Boateng; Kamara
Strengths: This LA side has completely revamped its approach to MLS after last season’s failures. Options were declined on four home grown players, the Gyassi Zardes experiment came to a conclusion, Jermaine Jones was sent packing, Clement Diop was replaced by David Bingham, and van Anholt’s MLS stay did not even last half a season. A whole bunch of new faces were brought in and it seems to be working. Let’s see where LA might succeed on Saturday.
Flushing Hinge: While many faces in the Toyota Park crowd will be ogling several of LA’s stars, you can bet that none of them purchased their tickets eagerly awaiting Perry Kitchen. Perhaps they should have. The USMNT midfielder was a stalwart at DC United before plying his trade at Hearts in Scotland, where he captained the side before a managerial change saw him lose playing time and he moved to Randers FC in Denmark. Since returning home, he has arguably been one of the best additions to this LA side. Controlling midfield was something that Jermaine Jones was tasked with last season but frequent injuries and the LA nightlife kept him from succeeding at that task. Kitchen on the other hand, has stepped in to serve as a buffer in front of the back line (a central area of struggle for LA last season), been integral in winning the ball back in the center of the park (averaging eleven defensive contributions per match), and has been an engine in starting transitional moves (completing 86% of his passes this season). A hard-working team player, Kitchen’s heat map will rarely catch him entering the final third, but his ability to operate around the half way line frees up the dos Santos brothers to work more creatively around him without worrying about getting caught out on the counter. Saturday’s match will largely be decided in midfield and we feel Kitchen will have something to say about the way this encounter ends.
Defense is Important You Say?: Last season the LA Galaxy conceded sixty-seven goals. Yes. You’re reading that correctly. Sixty-seven. Luckily for them, Minnesota saved their blushes by allowing seventy, otherwise the MLS all time record for goals conceded would have been mailed to the City of Angels along with the wooden spoon. It was no secret that fixing the back line was going to be a priority. Schmid, Kirovski, and Vagenas got to work early in the window and added Jorgen Skjelvik to partner Steres, Rolf Feltscher to serve as a right back/center back option, and David Bingham at goalkeeper in hopes of fixing a leaky back line.
Prior to coming to LA, Skjelvik spent most of his career playing for Rosenborg BK and Staebek, stints which included Europa League competition for the Norse center back. Additionally, he has appeared for Norway in World Cup Qualifiers. Feltscher has had a much more storied career, appearing for Grasshopper, Parma, Lausanne, Duisburg, Getafe, Zaragoza, and Cardiff, while also featuring for Venezuela. The message in both instances is clear, veteran leadership, international experience, and testing in the most physically oriented leagues in Europe was a must to fix LA’s defensive struggles. So far, they are not statistically much better than last year’s LA side, but organizationally and chemistry-wise they look fantastic. We’d say they are a better match up for Nikolic than has been the case thus far.
Zlatan: Here is your obligatory statement about the legendary Swede. His entrance into El Traffico resulted in the Galaxy claiming bragging rights over LAFC and marked the beginning of his conquest of North America. Ibrahimovic has won at least one trophy in his first year with each of his previous clubs and we wouldn’t put it past him to singlehandedly bring silverware back to LA. He may not feature heavily in this match due to a small injury/fitness concerns (reports have him training off to the side on his own this week) but all it takes is a second for Zlatan to Zlatan. The sell out crowd tells you all you need to know about his impact on the sport.
Weaknesses: Even the most jaw dropping acquisitions cannot fix the stigma of being the worst team in the league overnight. LA’s collapse last season was catastrophic and lost them a lot of respect among fans and pundits alike. Certain flaws remain and have been visible over the last few matches, let’s take a look at where they might struggle.
Help, I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up: For as much work as LA has done on the back line, they have also been naïve in not adding depth at the wingback position. Schmid has consistently relied on Ashley Cole to play left back after the thirty-seven-year-old Englishman extended his contract with the Galaxy. However, Schmid has not changed his system to accommodate the aging legs of the former Arsenal and Chelsea star, nor has he gone to the bench much to give him a rest late on in matches. It has cost LA on a number of occasions as Cole has been directly responsible for a number of LA’s conceded goals. SKC’s second goal in this past weekend’s encounter is a good example of his wear and tear as he allowed Russell to get past him and into the six yard box. Additionally, in the win against LAFC, he did not close down Vela on LAFC’s first goal and looked gassed and out of sorts as Urena blew passed him for LAFC’s second. As a last example, Medina left him in the dust in the sequence that led to NYCFC’s game winner earlier this season.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Cole was suspended for the one match in which LA earned a clean sheet (Schmid transitioned to a 3-4-3 with Arce deputizing for the Englishman), but the Galaxy has not tried their luck with that approach since. It is telling that LA did not score against Vancouver either (Cole is especially dangerous going forward and putting in crosses) and therefore we are likely to see him on the pitch this Saturday. This may be another instance in which Fire supporters rue the trade of Accam or the lack of an out and out winger being brought in to replace him, but if Paunovic can get some width and speed out of Collier, Campos, or perhaps even Bakero, Cole is there to be exposed.
Canta y No Llores: While Zlatan’s appeal is definitely a factor, the spike in attendance at Toyota Park also has a lot to do with the arrival of the dos Santos brothers to one of the country’s most heavily populated Mexican diaspora communities. National team icons and players that have brought the Mexican game to the top tier of European leagues, the siblings are worth their weight in gold on the pitch and off of it. However, early indications from LA’s training sessions this week are that both of them could be missing in this fixture. Giovanni has been dealing with a quad strain that he picked up against NYCFC while Jonathan is listed as questionable on the MLS injury report. Their absence would be a huge relief to Fire supporters and the Fire’s midfield alike.
Squad Congestion: It seems as if LA have the opposite problem that Chicago does when it comes to player personnel. A series of injuries has decimated an already thin Fire squad which, without transfer reinforcements, has been forced to play people out of position, give starts to players that wouldn’t see the field on other teams, and logged extensive minutes on certain heavy legs. The Galaxy on the other hand, have had to bench players that would be starting regularly elsewhere due to an influx of signings and it seems to have taken a mental toll on certain players.
Ola Kamara has yet to score since the Zlatan signing, Alessandrini’s performances and DP tag haven’t seemed to match up this season, Lleget’s place in the starting eleven has seemingly been put up for grabs, and the likes of Ciani cannot be happy with their playing time given their pedigree. Not only can this lead to a lack of chemistry, but the egos that come with some of the Galaxy personalities might start to grumble. If Chicago can exhibit some of the mental toughness that Nelson Rodriguez says he looks for in players, they might have the edge in this one.
Prediction: These clubs are on opposite trajectories. LA’s loss against Sporting KC was a fluke that saw them hit the woodwork on four occasions and dominate the match in terms of opportunities, while Chicago’s win over Columbus was also largely a fluke in the opposite way. MLS will restore parity this weekend at the expense of Fire supporters. LA 5-2 Chicago. Zlatan scores a hat trick, Ola Kamara adds another, and Perry Kitchen scores a header off of a corner for the Galaxy, Nikolic bags a brace for the Fire.