LA Galaxy (11,6,15; 48 points), already among the 6 MLS teams who have qualified for MLS playoffs, face last-place Houston Dynamo (7,13,12; 33 points) this Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium 2 p.m. PT in their second match at Dynamo’s orange stage, their third meeting all season. At stake in this match is no joking matter – home field advantage in the knockout round, a match that last year the Galaxy played on Seattle’s turf as they crashed out of post-season glory with the Sounders netting 3 goals on a shaky LA defense that lacked sharp readiness for most of the late 2015 season. With just two games left in the regular season, if things stay as they are, 3rd place LA would face 6th place Sporting Kansas City in a one-off, then the winner would play Colorado Rapids in the conference semifinals for a chance at advancing further towards the MLS Cup.
We haven’t seen LA Galaxy in league action since their defeat on October 1st to Western Conference’s second place FC Dallas, but their recent track record causes many fans to wonder if the Galaxy have checked out of the zone and are floating in LA-LA land. The Galaxy posted their last clean sheet on August 27 and last win on September 11, only to be followed up by a draw and two consecutive losses including their first defeat at home in a 2-4 match against the Sounders that mirrored a 2-5 loss the year before to the surging Portland Timbers. During the last two weeks, Mike Magee has spoken of a team bonding dinner and Landon Donovan has discussed the need for them all to self-evaluate on performances and to assess how to work things out on an individual level and team level.
“A lot of times when you’re playing poorly you want to get back on the field, but we needed time to kind of re-assess things. It gave us a chance to step back, be honest and understand that if we want to have any chance of winning there are certain things we have to do right,” Donovan asserted earlier this week.
There has been a general sense that the leadership on and off the field has been struggling and questions of accountability arise during post-match media scrums when the captain does not appear for comment. There have been rumors of locker room tension, salary renewal questions over Robbie Keane’s status once his current contract expires at the end of the year, and there’s still a cloud looming over the hasty departure of Nigel de Jong, who didn’t just rack up suspensions for dangerous plays, but really brought a bite to LA’s bark that hadn’t existed in a while. Since his departure for Turkey, 13 goals have gone through LA’s formerly exalted line of defense that was in large part responsible for the many draws struck this season.
Sunday’s match is a must-win according to the high-flying Giovani dos Santos who’s red hot September not only won him MLS Player of the Month, but also led to him being called up for international duty and a resulting performance worthy of a player who has been coming into his own maturity for perhaps the first time. Dos Santos returned this week from scoring a goal and an assist as captain of El Tri, took two days rest and headed straight to practicing with his Galaxy teammates. The timing could not be better as both Steven Gerrard (hamstring injury) and Robbie Keane (questionable, indoors training all week) are not on the expected roster for today’s match. As has already been tediously discussed, Sometimes not all stars can shine at the same time. One star’s brightness dims another. Giovani dos Santos will therefore, have sufficient room on the field to paint his goal-scoring path.
“Stevie and Robbie are very important players for the team, and when they’re not in the team, and then others have to step up and do their best,” Dos Santos honestly pointed out to reporters this week at practice.
But Keane and Gerrard aren’t the only stars missing for now. Gyasi Zardes is still out for the duration – although hopefully returning by the end of October. Jelle Van Damme, arguably one of the best players of the team this season, is suspended for the match, and Daniel Steres will have to step to the task. It’s been a while since the two began pairing up so the time has come to perform without Van Damme’s leadership. Jelle has confidence in his center-back teammate. “He’s progressed a lot from the preseason to now, and that all has to do with confidence. He’s what, 24, 25? You can only progress by playing games and he’s getting better and better every week,” he said earlier this season. In addition, we may even see Landon Donovan return to the starting lineup, a spot he never saw coming so early on, but a role only someone with his experience and determination to deliver on such a steep re-conditioning curve can fill.
As Bruce Arena would succinctly put it, there’s no reason to hit any panic buttons. They are in the playoffs. The rest, to thrive, not just survive, is up to his team.