“I’m still waiting. I’m not smart enough yet. I need more time than that,” when asked if he was ready to make decision about how good this team could be. “Who knows with all of this, but we are capable of being a pretty good team. We need a lot more work together, a lot more coordination…the challenges in the league will continue.” – Bruce Arena
Major League Soccer is full of challenges. The challenge most commented-upon by new arrivals is the extensive travel required by the geographical scale of a league that encompasses both the United States and Canada. The LA Galaxy, after playing on a Sunday afternoon, must now fly across the country for a game in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. They’ll tally a round trip of 4,777 miles between their win over New England at home and their game at PPL Park in Philadelphia, and will cross four time zones (Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern). The time difference also means their circadian rhythms will be off by three hours. Anyone who compares MLS to other leagues without taking into account its travel demands is not fully capturing the nature of the league.
Even LA Galaxy Insider Adam Serrano, on a recent episode of Corner of the Galaxy: From the Box (LA Galaxy’s “Center Seat Gio” problem) highlighted the challenge of travel in MLS, “One thing that definitely has to change is commercial flights,” Serrano said. “If we’re talking about Giovani dos Santos in the middle seat, that’s not something that I think should be happening. That’s not something up to the level of a professional league.” Anyone who’s had the pleasure of sitting in the middle seat on a Southwest Airlines flight from LA to Middle America can attest, it’s not something you would wish upon a professional athlete. It’s also undermines Major League Soccer’s professed aspiration to be one of the world’s great soccer leagues.
Travel is not the only impediment to achieving cohesion on this LA Galaxy team. Arena also must manage personnel. Robbie Keane played 60 minutes after making his first return to action since a knee procedure saw him miss five league games. Steven Gerrard is recovering from a groin injury and only played 30 minutes on Sunday. Jelle Van Damme is sitting on four yellow cards and will be suspended after his next card unless he can buck the trend of receiving a yellow card every game and manage to string together another 3 games of good behavior. Nigel De Jong will probably miss a couple more games dealing with a knee injury after surviving his 3 game suspension. Ashley Cole missed Sunday’s game after being suspended for receiving two yellow cards in 20 seconds in LA’s game against Real Salt Lake. It’s enough to drive any coach or player crazy.
“It feels like at the moment that we’re getting people back, and then someone is missing through suspension or injury,… Come July, hopefully we get everybody back together, everybody fit and healthy, and I think you’ll see a stronger team. But certainly in the next 5-6 weeks, players are all over the place so it’s quite difficult to get a rhythm.” – Robbie Keane, after the New England game
That’s right, if you thought that a midweek game was the team’s most pressing issue, Robbie Keane would remind you that, with the Euro 2016 and Copa Centenario on the horizon, fans cannot get accustomed to seeing a full roster complement. Keane will shortly be in Europe captaining Ireland at the Euros, Gyasi Zardes will join the USMNT, and Giovani dos Santos will more than likely be with Mexico. So if injuries prevent this team from coming together, international fixtures and long breaks very well could.
The Euros start on June 10th and the final will be played on July 10th, while Copa Centenario will sideline some players from June 3rd to June 26th this year. That could potentially see the LA Galaxy impacted by international absences for five games and see them without some key players for the entire month of June and into the July 4th home game.
- June 2nd vs Sporting KC
- June 18th at Toronto FC
- June 22nd vs Colorado
- June 25th at San Jose
- July 4th vs Vancouver
Quite honestly, even the domestic schedule in Major League Soccer is toying with the LA Galaxy. After a start to the season that was balanced in terms of home and away games, in terms of games being consistently played on the weekend and in terms of playing a game at one-week intervals, LA will now play a game 72 hours after finishing their last game. The team will then be off for 11 days before facing San Jose, for the second time this year, at home for a Cali-Clasico on May 22nd.
Arena’s appraisal that he still needs time to figure his team out is a fair one. How long will Arena, and LA’s fans, have to wait to discover the true nature of the 2016 LA Galaxy? With lineup changes, injuries, suspensions and international obligations wreaking havoc on LA’s hopes for consistency, drawing conclusions on how good this team can be from the available analytics may be imprudent. Regardless, the next month and a half will prove whether the solid start to LA’s season signals a team capable of achieving something special. It’s safe to say that the challenges set forth above are only the beginning of the story for this season’s LA Galaxy team.