Ramp up the hype machine, because two of the hottest teams in the league are set to go head-to-head this Wednesday night at the StubHub Center.
DC comes into town sitting on top of the Eastern Conference, and hot off a weekend performance where they absolutely dismantled Sporting Kansas City. LA is also on a roll, after a stirring come-from-behind triumph in Colorado followed by a dominating performance against Vancouver.
This brutal and busy stretch of games is taking its toll on the Galaxy, who could be short the services of both Robbie Rogers and Stefan Ishizaki, but LA can’t afford to let off the gas now — the Supporters Shield is at stake, along with a CCL berth and all that extra allocation money that comes along with it. With the Angelenos sitting at 40 points in 23 games and Seattle at 45 in 24, from here on out every point is sacred.
Although LA has multiple games in hand over RSL and FC Dallas, they have but 1 game in hand over Seattle — and that game is this midweek clash against DC. Points are vital. So, without further ado, here is my tactical preview of the match.
The District by the Numbers
Here is the short and sweet of it: LA leads DC in nearly every meaningful predictive metric imaginable. All data courtesy of the wonderful folks at American Soccer Analysis:
Data as of August 25th.
% of Poss. in Final 3rd
LA has superior possession numbers, both overall and in the final third.
Data as of August 25th.
Shots on Goal For
Shots on Goal Against
LA takes more shots, puts more on goal, allows fewer shots, and allows fewer on goal.
Goals as of August 25th. Even Goals as of August 11th — “even” refers to statistics accumulated while the score was tied and each team had the same number of players.
Even Goals For
Even Goals Against
Even Goal Differential
In terms of goals scored, things start to get a little closer, but LA has superior goal differential and a higher goal differential from an even state. But DC is a bit of an enigma, continually outperforming expectations all year in terms of both what the fans and media expect and, rather literally, in terms of American Soccer Analysis’ Expected Goals 2.0 model.
But why? Has it just been a matter of luck? Is it smart tactics, or does DC possess the ever elusive “grit” variable, for which there is no measure? Frankly I don’t know — although I suspect a little of each has played a part in their Cinderella season. There’s more to DC than meets the eye, and trusting the numbers when it comes to this team has been the folly of many an analyst (and team!) this season.
What can be gleaned from the numbers, however, is that LA will likely see more of the ball and more of the chances. The Galaxy would do well to score early, in order to limit DC’s uncanny ability to net timely goals against the run of play.
Now that we know which team will most likely have more of the ball and create the most chances, it’s time to look at the player matchups to see what tactical predictions can be gleaned.
With injuries to both Rogers and Ishizaki, the Galaxy’s lineup is very much a question mark. If we assume LA and DC don’t make any changes from their weekend games, here’s what the field’s looking like:
DC’s big three are Luis Silva, Chris Rolfe, and Fabián Espindola. Espindola is by no means a traditional 9 and likes to drift all around the field, as you can see in this heat map from the SKC game:
Much like Robbie Keane, Espindola loves to wreak havoc on defenses by dropping back between the backline and the defensive mids. Check out DC’s rather impressive chance creation chart from the game against SKC. Fabian Espindola is number 9. Luis Silva is number 11, and Chris Rolfe is number 18. Goals are in green. Passes leading to a shot are in yellow, and assists are in blue:
The first thing that jumps out at me when I see this chart is the potentially disastrous matchup of Leonardo on Espindola. Why? It’s rather simple. Leonardo is very bad at tracking runners. You know that scene in Jurassic Park where they explain that if they keep still, the T-Rex won’t see them? Leonardo is like a reverse T-Rex: when Espindola is moving– and he will be – count on Leonardo to lose him.
Hopefully Rogers will be healthy and A.J. can return to centerback to neutralize this threat – as A.J. can track wandering strikers with the best of them – but if not, Galaxy fans should circle Leo vs. Espindola as the main match-up to watch.
Threat number 2 comes from the potential mismatch of Stefan Ishizaki (if he plays) and Dan Gargan against Chris Rolfe. Stefan Ishizaki likes to push very far forward in the attack, and isn’t the fastest at getting back. This makes the Ishizaki/Gargan pairing especially vulnerable.
When Ishizaki pushes forward, Gargan has a tendency to run the overlap — and neither of them manage to get back as fast as they should. It’s a hole that Justin Meram took advantage of repeatedly in the Galaxy’s game against Columbus, and it’s something the wiley Rolfe will likely look to exploit against LA.
If Ishizaki can’t play, it may be a blessing in disguise — as Baggio Husidic tracks back far better on that side. Not only does he put in more tackles to win balls, but he doesn’t push up as much, which helps keep Gargan more disciplined, positionally. If this sounds like an over-emphasis on defense, consider just how little chance creation we’re getting out of Ishizaki. There’s not much lost in the swap for Husidic.
If LA can neutralize Espindola and Rolfe, Juninho should have no problems covering Silva. But enough about the defense. Let’s shift gears and focus on the offense.
While it would be unfair to say that DC is a team that likes to bunker, they definitely favor a conservative defensive shape. This is why they take so few shots — DC is very much of the “defense-first” mentality.
DC’s strongest defenders – Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin – line up on the same side as Landon Donovan. To make matters worse, the combo of DC’s right mid and right-center defensive mid (Nick DeLeon and Davey Arnaud, respectively) do a very good job protecting that flank.
To get a sense of just how good they are, here are the combined defensive actions of Franklin, DeLeon, and Arnaud, last weekend against Sporting Kansas City:
As you can see, Perry Kitchen sits pretty centrally in defense. He also moves up field during the attack. Here is his heat map against Kansas City:
Arnaud, on the other hand, sweeps left to right in his defensive duties, and rarely gets forward…
…and this is key. Kitchen can be caught upfield on the counter, or tied down closely to Robbie Keane as he drops back. In the latter case, Sarvas will be hard pressed to find the feet of Keane, and will look to feed one of the wingers. When that happens, Arnaud can sweep to this side and attempt to close down the ball.
As DC shifts to chase the ball (and if you recall the disparity in the possession stats, they will be doing this a lot) LA should look to find space by quickly switching the point of attack. For an example of this, watch Marcelo Sarvas switch beautifully against Colorado, after Landon pulls them to one side:
Another way to unlock a strong center-mids pairing is for LA’s own center-mids to make creative runs into the final third. The less predictable the better, as a bit of chaos will keep Kitchen and Arnaud on their toes. Watch as Marcelo Sarvas’ run completely throws off Seattle’s marking scheme:
Let’s put it all together:
DC is going to be a defensively tough team to crack, but will have a very fluid attack when pushing forward. When the ball is turned over, LA needs to be disciplined on defense and make sure that Espindola is always marked, but never pulling extra men off of Silva or Rolfe.
This is no easy task, and, in many ways, LA’s defense will be getting a taste of their own medicine — this is essentially how Robbie Keane makes his living.
At the same time, LA will have the run of play. They should see plenty of the ball, a decent amount of shots, and create a good number of chances. For the Galaxy, it’ll be key to avoid the temptation of overcommitting on the attack. That has been a trend of LA’s, especially when they get frustrated by a compact defense, and has the potential to be a problem against DC. If the Galaxy can stay patient, disciplined, and focused on converting their chances, DC shouldn’t be a problem.
That’s a big if, though – and LA wouldn’t be the first team to underestimate this squad and their Cinderella season – which is why Wednesday’s game is so intriguing.