Anytime the LA Galaxy offense scores three goals, it is going to get most of the attention. But on Saturday at StubHub Center, it was the defense that made everything else a lot easier.
“We did a better job of dropping our line,” Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid told reporters after the Galaxy’s 3-0 win over the lowly Colorado Rapids. “We talked a lot about how Dominique Badji has speed, and I think last week against San Jose, Marco Urena did the same thing.
“But we stepped up too high and too early in part of the field, so we talked about dropping our line. And then when we hold our line we’re closer to our 18-yard box. So you saw (goalkeeper) Jon Kempin come off his line and collect probably four to five balls in the 18.
“The defense did a much better job – (Dan) Steres and (Dave) Romney – about dropping that line and staying connected.”
It might sound simple, but the mechanics of dropping a bit deeper can have a demonstrative effect on a game.
With Jelle Van Damme’s recent departure, the Galaxy are depending on Romney and Steres to lock down the center of the field. In recent games (such as NYCFC, for example) the two central defenders were caught too far upfield, where a simple pass could unlock a high-pressing defense.
So taking a few steps back to help keep things in front of the back four and allow players like Jermaine Jones, a vital component in the Galaxy’s defensive success on Saturday, to put his stamp on the game can only help.
“What the coach wants is that if we’re building up, that we can have a back three and we can build from the back,” Jones explained after the game. “If not, I can stay in front of them. I think it fits me good. I feel comfortable there. I think the team feels comfortable with that, too.
“And we get that extra guy with Ashley [Cole] on the left or Bradley [Diallo] on the right. They can always push forward, and we get that extra guy and we can overload it. I think today that worked good.”
When Jones can sit back in front of Romney and Steres, it provides enough width to keep from being countered on the wings. It also allows Cole or Diallo to get forward in the attack.
An overlapping run from an outside back is a staple of almost any offensive scheme. Rarely in today’s game are there defenders who can’t get up the wings and send in crosses to the rest of their attacking options. This overload on the outside is important in creating dangerous offensive chances.
But there is a downside to this strategy. Pushing a defender forward can leave teams vulnerable to quick counters and overloads, something the Galaxy have seen their fair share of this season. But with Jones protecting the center backs the hope is they can slow any such counter, keep the play in front of them and allow the midfield and outside defenders to make their recovery runs.
“People are saying I’m getting old, so I don’t have to run that much anymore (laughs). It’s good. I play anywhere I can help. If it’s a holding six, I can play it. if we get wins, that’s more important. I have no problem; I’ve played it a long time in my career.” Jermaine Jones, LA Galaxy Midfielder
Playing deeper also allows Kempin to cover a little less ground. That’s something backup goalkeeper Clement Diop might have benefited from on multiple occasions this season.
“It just allows less room for me to cover in behind,” Kempin said about the backline dropping deeper. “It’s also a little safer, a little more conservative. Players don’t get in behind us. (Saturday) They had Badji who was fast up top – speed up top. Sometimes he can get in behind, and all it takes is a lucky finish from him.
“We controlled that well. We controlled the spacing well. I thought everyone did good on that part. [We] Kept them to only two shots.”
Spacing, as Kempin mentioned, is the other important part of the Galaxy equation. If pulled too wide, the center backs allow runs through the middle of the field – a good example being Costa Rica’s first goal against the United States men’s national team in last week’s World Cup qualifier. If they’re not wide enough counter attacks can penetrate around the edges and either attack from there or launch crosses into the middle of the field where space has been created.
This is where Jones’ ability to slide back and protect the Galaxy’s central pairing helps put out fires before they get started. Romney felt confident in the approach.
“We pretty much knew if we kept them in front of us,” he said, “and we didn’t let Badji get in behind — that’s kind of what he was going to try and do; just use his speed to get in behind us — if we just limited that, they weren’t going to be creative enough to kind of create something in front of us or play some combination stuff.
“So I think we executed that pretty well.”
The level of competition and danger the Rapids provided shouldn’t be a measuring stick for the success the Galaxy had on the night. The Seattle Sounders, this weekend’s opponent, will provide a much more stern test that features players with different skill sets. Where the Rapids were limited in creativity, the Sounders have players who can create in front of the Galaxy’s back line.
They’ll pass and cut their way into a Galaxy defense that will attempt to stay behind the ball and keep plays in front of it. And when the Sounders are dangerous, they’ll invite the pressure forward to open up tiny lanes in the defense to exploit.
“It’s definitely a lot easier to defend when you have a lead,” Romney said. “You can kind of sit back and just be patient, work the ball around the back instead of everyone getting antsy and just trying to press and then gaps start opening up.”
Having a lead against the Sounders shouldn’t be a luxury the Galaxy’s defense will be counting on. The Sounders, after all, lead the Western Conference with just seven games remaining. The Galaxy are ninth in the West, 11 points out of a playoff spot.
But last Saturday the Galaxy and their defense executed a plan, limited offensive chances and put themselves in a position to win for only the second time at home this season and seventh time overall. More importantly, the Galaxy developed a system that works. And with that confidence, they will be better off heading into a stretch of tough games against some very high-powered offenses.