The motivation to always win games that drives champions is built of confidence and hunger — confidence in oneself, confidence in one’s teammates, confidence that the tactics will yield a profitable result, and a hunger to prove it time and time again.  Does the LA Galaxy’s attacking lineup have the ability to bite on the pitch as sharply as its bark looks on paper?  Will LA Galaxy’s new number 10, here for his first full season, prove a worthy successor to Landon Donovan’s legacy? Will the newly slim Steven Gerrard be able to tolerate the physical toll MLS’ season inflicts on his body? One gets the sense this roster has been built with a win-or-die mentality; this is not a year of growth and building for the future, and expectations run high. The backline is a crux of the ‘new-look’ LA Galaxy and pundits are already pinpointing its strengths and weaknesses, having shown in the pre-season with both panache and power. The opposite end of the pitch, however, has already begun to show signs of weakness. Though much of their struggle is attributable to lacking match fitness, it’s not too soon to wonder: what will peak performance look like? Let’s take a quick look at the LA Galaxy’s three designated players: Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos – and its much vaunted homegrown player, Gyasi Zardes, who recently received a salary boost and contract extension.

LA Galaxy vs DC United - Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

LA Galaxy vs DC United – Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Steven Gerrard remains a point of contention as Galaxy fans await the promise of his 17-years of experience at Anfield. There are reasons to believe his partnership with newcomer Nigel de Jong will be more productive than last year’s efforts to reach a balanced midfield with Juninho. First and foremost, this year Gerrard is cognizant of the level of play, scheduling and travel implications in MLS, all of which impacted his ability to contribute effectively in 2015.  He claims that MLS has made him a better player in fact:

“Obviously getting used to teammates and new tactics, it’s a different way of playing. I will certainly be better for the highs and lows of last season. The level is certainly a lot better than people think. It’s very competitive. There’s some good players in the league, good managers and good tactics.”

Gerrard still appears to be struggling to chase down balls, as the SCCL match against Santos Laguna and Sunday’s match against DC United showed.

Instead, Gerrard should play to his strengths – hitting pinpoint long-balls. Gerrard is relatively introspective and self-aware as soccer players go so fans can rest assured that he will try to compensate for his shortcomings as opposed to phoning in his performances. Rumors of him planning on retirement shouldn’t play a role in assessing his desire to play at his best this year; indeed, as someone keenly aware of his reputation, he no doubt wants to leave a mark on his time in MLS. Though we can’t expect he live up to the legacies of Landon Donovan or David Beckham, he undoubtedly feels a similar responsibility to succeed, which will motivate him to win:

“I don’t want to shut any doors and I don’t want to make any rash decisions, because where I sit now I still feel healthy. Where I sit now, I’m not ready to retire.”

Admittedly Gerrard’s performance in last night’s home opener showcased a worst-case scenario for the superstar midfielder from Liverpool. The only goal DC United scored came as a direct result of an error by Gerrard and his lack of steam in the first half stymied the team from moving forwards. Gerrard was able to absolve himself of that thanks to a much-improved second-half and subsequently confessed that he had been ill during the game but was stuck between a rock and a hard place following the injury-substitutions of Dan Kennedy and Giovani dos Santos.  Fans will likely give a pass to Gerrard given that he chose to address the issue after the game — points for leadership and courage. But the jury’s still out on his fitness in the long run.

Robbie Keane during LA Galaxy vs DC United - Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Robbie Keane during LA Galaxy vs DC United – Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Robbie Keane is similarly getting on in years but retains poise and leadership on and off the pitch and never seems to want for intensity on the field. From his days at Wolverhampton, Coventry, Inter Milan, Leeds, Spurs, Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham, Aston Villa and now LA Galaxy, Keane has been a prolific goal-scorer his entire life (always a cut above his teammates, tallying 20 goals in 2015).

There’s no reason to expect this is about to change. From this writer’s vantage point, the only thing that can bring him down is disappointment in his teammates, perhaps an understandable disappointment given the downturn that fellow forward, Gyasi Zardes, has suffered.

Gyasi Zardes during LA Galaxy vs DC United - Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Gyasi Zardes during LA Galaxy vs DC United – Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Zardes is a questionmark. Did he peak in 2014? Was his flurry of goals merely the result of a bounty of chance creation from Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane making it easy for Zardes to point and shoot?  The sharp drop-off in productivity as a goal-scorer, in spite of all his experience on Klinsmann’s roster, causes one to wonder where this year will take him.  On the one hand, experiments can lead to discovery, so Arena’s experimental formation during the last two CONCACAF Champions League games, yet another variant of which fans saw last night against DC United, should perhaps be lauded.  But it simply does not work to place Gyasi on the wing with dos Santos alongside Keane as striker.  This formation kills creativity and shrinks the space on the field that the Galaxy’s chance-creators have to work their magic.  Many analysts have suggested this formation should be abandoned in its entirety.  Perhaps the only reason to continue in this current formation is that teams benefit from being able to field players in multiple positions.  Every MLS team suffers injuries, so there are legitimate reasons a coach with a shallow roster could field players out of their natural position.  That argument is less persuasive vis-a-vis the Galaxy given its roster depth. However, perhaps Bruce Areana is developing players like Zardes with an eye towards making them as versatile as possible.  The safer bet would be to put players in a position to shine, i.e., in their best positions.  In this case, that means putting Zardes up top and dos Santos in the attacking midfield or wing where he can create chances.  In the midfield, dos Santos can make the most of his creativity, his relative youth, his ambition and his footwork. This will be both his and Gerrard’s first full season, and having these two players at 100% full-time is a crucial linchpin to LA Galaxy’s success.

Mike Magee during LA Galaxy vs DC United - Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Mike Magee during LA Galaxy vs DC United – Photo Credit Steve Carrillo

Last night’s match against DC United offered something the other pre-season games didn’t – fans can no longer argue the fitness gap between the Galaxy and its opposition factors into team performance. Yet something about Giovani dos Santos was off from the start. His positioning on the pitch felt awkward at best and he was unable to make any game-changing plays the entire 45-minutes he was on the field. Giovani dos Santos is certainly not winning any confidence thus far from Galaxy fans. He arrive in Los Angeles with a price tag that promised he would deliver the Galaxy not only trophies but crossover fans. Dos Santos has been lackluster at best for the past month; his lack in creativity and play-making passes was painfully obvious last night, particularly when one compare his performance to that of Mike Magee, who subbed in for dos Santos at the half and looked the spitting image of the Mr. November who proved such a clutch player for the Galaxy during the 2011 and 2012 playoffs. Dos Santos should be contributing speed and finishing, creativity and artful footwork – he has not delivered on his promise yet.  Further, despite the fact that dos Santos had a lengthy offseason, it is worrying that he left the game at the half with an undisclosed leg injury.  Yet what the Galaxy lack in designated player shine, it makes up for in depth – the Galaxy have Mike Magee for now, and though Magee should be deployed with caution as a safeguard, he may end up playing a bigger role than Arena originally anticipated.

It’s important to note the newest addition to the first team, Ariel Lassiter, son of Roy Lassiter and, more notably, the leading scorer for Los Dos last year.  Ariel Lassiter began LA Galaxy II’s season with a first-half hat-trick against Loyola Marymount University.

Last year, after the LA Galaxy’s 2-1 defeat to FC Barcelona, Lassiter was asked how ready he was for the first team:

I feel close. I don’t want to get complacent and I want to continue to develop who I am,… I want to continue to get better. There are things that Bruce wants me to get better to be ready for the first team… I need to be ready.” 

He’s ready.  He will be looking to serve as a substitute for Gyasi Zardes when needed.  That, in combination with Mike Magee’s sharp instinctive plays like the ones fans were witness to last night, means that the Galaxy’s designated players cannot rest easy – hungry players will be nipping at their heels for opportunity, so who knows who could wind up on the bench?

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