CARSON, Calif. — The LA Galaxy will get back to actually playing soccer this weekend as they face off against the Portland Timbers on Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park (6 p.m.; ESPN2).
And, for the first time this season, they’re likely to do it with an almost complete squad.
The Galaxy (2-1-0) will need to take another step forward on Sunday if they want to continue their winning momentum from two weeks ago. And much of that progress will rely on getting several critical areas under control against a struggling Portland side (0-2-1).
HEALTHY TEAM, DEEP TEAM
For the first time in 2019, the Galaxy will find themselves almost entirely healthy.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has seemingly recovered from the achilles injury he suffered in the first game of the season, Romain Alessandrini is back after nursing a hamstring injury, and Juninho has been back to training for the last two weeks as he recovers from a knee injury.
But this also means that for the first time this season, the Galaxy’s bench becomes a very tight place.
Only midfielder Perry Kitchen is still injured while he recovers from an ankle injury he sustained earlier this season.
With Ibrahimovic and Alessandrini questionable as starters, and with one day of training still to go, Galaxy midfielders Chris Pontius and Emmanuel Boateng could find themselves on the bench. Which could then kick off a chain reaction that will push others out of the 18-man roster.
Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto will welcome having to make those hard decisions after getting his team to a positive result two weeks ago when they beat Minnesota United with only a single Designated Player (Jonathan dos Santos).
But gauging whether or not Ibrahimovic and Alessandrini are ready for starting minutes is another question altogether.
The bench will still find room for Efrain Alvarez, and the defensive subs don’t change much, but choosing between others might not be so easy. Will Juninho ride the bench ahead of Carrasco? And will Ethan Zubak still be the first striker off the bench?
Still, it’s a good problem for the Galaxy to finally have.
THE FRENCH PRESS
The Galaxy succeeded in pressuring Minnesota into bad situations deep in their own territory. And that will likely be the game plan against the Timbers, as well — regardless of if Ibrahimovic or Alessandrini start.
But without 21-year-old Uriel Antuna at the pointy-end of a 4-3-3 formation, will Ibrahimovic be able to drive the same pressure when or if he plays?
The simple answer clearly points at “no.” But he may not have to.
With Alessandrini or Boateng’s speed on the wings, and with Antuna also matching them on the opposite side, the Galaxy may still be able to apply pressure to the Timbers deep in their own zone.
The success or failure of that press, however, really shines the spotlight on both Alessandrini and the central midfield.
If the Galaxy can get a good push up the middle from Sebastian Lletget, Joe Corona, and Jonathan dos Santos they should still be able to strangle the Timbers’ 4-3-2-1 (Christmas tree formation) and keep the ball off the foot of Diego Valeri – the playmaking Argentine who is clearly their best player.
And if Alessandrini or Boateng can apply an equivalent amount of pressure from the other side, the Galaxy should still be able to force turnovers in the attacking zone.
“It’s good to see Romain and Ibra back,” Lletget told reporters on Friday. “It’s been really good, training today was awesome. The chemistry is already there.
“We want to carry on what we did against Minnesota. We thought it was a good performance; we want to keep building on that.”
But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work against Portland and that the Galaxy
However, it almost seems inevitable that the battle for this game comes down to which midfield can quiet the other and capitalize on defensive mistakes.
That’s when it’s nice to have a guy like Ibrahimovic on the team.
“Maybe we can change a little bit because he’s more technical,” Schelotto told reporters. “The most important thing is to manage the ball well, when we lose it we try to pressure it.
“Maybe with Antuna he’s very fast, moving all the time. Maybe you can see him better at that position, but the talent of Ibra is something special.”
Nothing can change the fact that Portland has given up ten goals in their last three games. Even if you’re throwing out an ugly season opener that saw a 3-3 draw with the Colorado Rapids in a blizzard, there’s no denying that the 2018 Western Conference Champions are struggling to keep balls out of the net right now.
They allowed four goals in a loss to Los Angeles FC (4-1) and then were shutout by MLS newcomers FC Cincinnati where they allowed three more goals.
They’re making the same mistakes over and over again, and so far, their usually high-scoring attack hasn’t saved them.
And that shouldn’t be fixed by the suspension of center back Larrys Mabiala, either. Mabiala will sit
But the Galaxy aren’t exactly angels on defense either. But they’ve been better for the start of the 2019 season. And new center back Diego Polenta had the best game of his Galaxy career (total of three games) against Minnesota.
The Galaxy seem to have the more sure-footed ground to stand on when it comes to defense, but the ghosts of 2017 and 2018 haven’t wholly disappeared.
PERFECT AT HOME
The Galaxy are 2-0-0 at home this season. And while that doesn’t mean much with just two games at Dignity Health Sports Park so far, it is a good sign.
The club earned just 14 points at home in 2017 (3-9-5) — meaning the 2019 club has already secured 42-percent of that total in their first two games. And in 2018 they bounced back for 28 total points in front of the home crowd (8-5-4) but left points on the table, for sure.
But Schelotto has been determined to make it difficult for opposing teams to play in Carson. And winning games early in the season is key to that plan.
Meanwhile, Portland won’t see its home field until June 1 while a $50 million renovation is completed at Providence Park. That renovation will add 4,000 seats to the historic downtown stadium but it also means their first 12 games all take place on the road.
Larry Morgan contributed to this story.