The LA Galaxy travel to Utah to play Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, September 7, 2016, at 6:30 p.m. PDT. The Galaxy currently maintain the fifth best home record (28 points, tied with Sporting KC) and the second best away record (15 points, behind FC Dallas with 17 points) in the Western Conference but sit in seventh position in the Supporter’s Shield race. Barring a miracle, the Galaxy must pin their hopes for silverware on MLS Cup, which itself seems a far-fetched proposition.
The Galaxy will be without the services of several key players: Steven Gerrard, Jelle Van Damme and Gyasi Zardes are out with injuries and it is improbable that Robbie Keane will be available given that he just returned from his final international performance with the Republic of Ireland national team and could still be carrying an injury from the Chicago game. As was widely reported last week, Nigel de Jong was transferred to Turkish team Galatasaray, leaving the Galaxy thin through the midfield.
Now, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and the Galaxy’s recent tribulations have yielded a few, possibly unintended, positive consequences. The first is that injuries in the midfield caused Bruce Arena to switch Sebastian Lletget to the central midfield position. Lletget shone as the Galaxy’s central midfielder in the game against Columbus, a fact which did not go overlooked by Major League Soccer’s editors who nominated Lletget for MLS Team of the Week.
As many of those who followed Sebastian Lletget’s youth career in England know, before he was best known for jaw-dropping selfies on Instagram, Lletget was known only as a promising product in the West Ham United Academy, where he developed for six years. West Ham United is not only known for 1980’s hooliganism and its eponymous anthem, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” it is also known for having one of the best development academies in England – it has in fact earned the nickname “The Academy of Football” for that very reason. While England does not generally excel at youth development when compared to, say, German or Belgium, West Ham has a rich tradition of developing players, including the likes of Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermaine Defoe, Rio Ferdinand, Mark Noble, James Tomkins and Jack Collison. If there is an academy in England where an American is likely to develop into a stellar Number 8, West Ham United is the most likely place.
For those unfamiliar with Mendiola, he was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and moved to the Los Angeles area at the age of eight. Though he briefly returned to Mexico to play in the youth system of CF Pachuca (where Omar Gonzalez currently plies his trade), he returned to join the LA Galaxy Academy in 2011 where he developed as a creative attacking player capable of playing either on the wing, as a central attacking midfielder or even as a striker.
“I try to make the team better even though I’m not the biggest guy. I do have a responsibility here and I try not to take it for granted,… Each moment I think that I have to use my smarts to get past bigger players since I don’t grow a lot of muscle.” Raúl Mendiola, in an interview with Adam Serrano in April 2014
Arena deployed Mendiola on the wing during his first MLS start against Columbus and the youngster injected some much-needed energy and creativity to the Galaxy’s offense. Hopefully, the Galaxy’s depleted ranks will yield additional minutes for the youngster.
“Obviously he’s a fighter; he’s skillful. He’s the kind of player that when you pick sides you’d like to take him because he’s going to battle for you. He’s going to play through the good and bad throughout the game. He’s a real competitor and I like that. I decided to play him tonight because I felt we just needed a little bit more energy on the field, a little bit more competitiveness. He brings that. He’s an honest player, can play on both sides of the ball. Did a real steady job.” Bruce Arena, on Mendiola’s performance against Columbus
Fresh off a win against the Columbus Crew on Saturday, the Galaxy are nonetheless desperately in need of additional road points, though they will be hard to come by in Salt Lake City. It is one thing to beat a Columbus side that is currently ranked dead last in the Eastern Conference who were without five of their usual starters, it’s another thing to beat RSL, currently ranked second in the Western Conference, at Rio Tinto Stadium. Let’s hope lightning strikes twice and Baggio Husidic finds another one of these stunners in his bag: