This Wednesday, June 29, 2016, the LA Galaxy faces off against defending MLS Cup champions, the Portland Timbers, in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16, in what will also be the fourth midweek clash and the fourth away game for the LA Galaxy in the past month. Portland has every reason to fancy their odds – not only does the Providence Park atmosphere provide a boost to the home team but the Galaxy, exhausted and missing critical players, are also currently playing some of the most insipid soccer in MLS.
To be fair to the LA Galaxy, the past month has been one of the most brutal stretches that any team in MLS will endure this year. Tomorrow will be the Galaxy’s seventh game in the past thirty days. During that time, the Galaxy has made two cross-country trips (to Montreal on May 28 and Toronto on June 18) and played in four midweek games. That the Galaxy played most of these games without important players like Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Gyasi Zardes speaks to how critical the lack of depth is on MLS rosters and how teams are perversely penalized for retaining the services of players who play for their country due to MLS’ intransigence vis-à-vis the FIFA international calendar.
However, schedule congestion does not justify poor results. Every team in MLS deals with prolonged travel, the circus of the international calendar, injuries and suspensions. As much as MLS teams are plagued by a lack of depth, the LA Galaxy has more depth than most. The Galaxy have yet to start the same two lineups in consecutive matches this season but the same could probably said of many teams. No one can deny that the Galaxy’s performances in the past month have been poor. While the backline has been mostly solid (in their previous four matches, the Galaxy have given up just two goals), the Galaxy are seemingly incapable of scoring.
(Photo Credit: Jon Lorentz)
There are many variables that contribute to the Galaxy’s current poor form. As has been pointed out by others, Giovani dos Santos has underperformed for the LA Galaxy. At first blush, signing Giovani dos Santos seemed like the ultimate coup for the LA Galaxy – he was a young attacking Designated Player and, as a mainstay player for El Tri, he was coming to Los Angeles, which boasts the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico in the world (as of 2012, the Los Angeles Metro Area had 1,751,000 foreign-born Mexican immigrants, representing some 13.6% of the Metro Area population).
However, perhaps Giovani dos Santos is not as versatile a player as analysts projected him to be. At first blush, dos Santos seemed an ideal successor to Landon Donovan – a creative number 10 who was capable of playing as an attacking midfielder, either centrally or on the wing, yet also dangerous when operating as a striker. But Giovani’s wing play for the Galaxy has not been good nor has he been a prolific chance creator operating as an attacking midfielder. Ultimately, Giovani dos Santos seems to be a better proxy for Robbie Keane, not Landon Donovan. Both Giovani and Keane like to occupy the same space on the field, both like to make the same runs, both like to create chances for themselves and neither offers much in the way of defense.
That being said, if the only problem was Giovani’s and Keane’s overlapping skill sets, Keane’s absence during the past month should have proved Giovani’s moment in the sun. Instead, Galaxy fans witnessed one of longest scoring droughts in recent memory. Which means something else is afoot.
The answer lies in the Galaxy’s midfield and his name is Steven Gerrard. If it turns out that Giovani dos Santos cannot be the Galaxy’s attacking midfielder, then the only player who can make the LA Galaxy click is Steven Gerrard. No other midfielder can link its defense to the final third and act as a creator than Gerrard. Nigel de Jong is an enforcer, and a great one – the LA Galaxy defense is not its current malady. Fans appreciate MLS veterans like Jeff Larentowicz, Rafael Garcia and Baggio Husidić but none of those players are the answer to the Galaxy’s travails. Gyasi Zardes, let’s be real, is a striker continually miscast as a winger by his coaches. Even for those who think Sebastian Lletget might best be served playing as an old-fashioned English-style central midfielder (this writer included), Lletget does not have Gerrard’s soccer IQ or his impeccable touch. Perhaps the only player capable of playing a truly creative attacking midfielder for the Galaxy is Jose Villareal but Villareal has always been injury prone, and for whatever reason, Bruce Arena seems reluctant to play him.
It seems only a few months ago that analysts were pondering how Gerrard would fit into the Galaxy’s roster. Now, the prospect of Gerrard picking up a knock in training is enough to send shivers down the collective spine of Galaxy fans. Gerrard demonstrated early in the season, through nifty plays like the one below, how crucial he was to the team’s success:
It is no coincidence that Gerrard made his first start since May 28 in the recent away game against the San Jose Earthquakes and in that same game Gerrard recorded an assist on Dos Santos’ goal in the second half. Gerrard has made only nine starts this season yet has still managed to record two goals and five assists.
As Gerrard’s fortunes go, so go those of the 2016 LA Galaxy. We live in interesting times, people.
The LA Galaxy’s game against Portland starts tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.