Steve Carrillo

Column: When does the learning begin for the LA Galaxy defense?

“We have to make sure it’s just a bump in the road,” LA Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid said of his club’s 2-1 loss at Colorado on Saturday night. “We’ve had a good stretch, but all of those things come to end at some time, so we have to stand up. We know what we did wrong, we have to look at that and make sure we come out ready to play next week against Minnesota.”

But the big thread through all of the winning, and losing, has been the Galaxy’s ability to learn from their mistakes. To continue the development of a defensive line that largely didn’t exist at the start of 2018.

In fact, of the players who have regularly started on the back line for the Galaxy, only Dave Romney and Ashley Cole were with the team prior to the start of this season.

Even the defensive midfield and goalkeeping side of things is new to the club. With 2018 additions Perry Kitchen, and Servando Carrasco pairing with 2017 midseason acquisition Jonathan dos Santos in the center of the field and 2018 trade acquisition David Bingham, the former San Jose Earthquakes starter, in the net.

And that lack of familiarity is readily apparent in almost every game the Galaxy play. Defenders, midfielders, and goalkeeper are seen pointing, yelling, and gesticulating wildly to each other. With no player seeming to understand the others’ positioning or thought process.

And with Schmid and assistant coach Dominic Kinnear, both known for their defensive style of coaching, trying to arrange the pieces into something that resembles a manageable MLS defense, the Galaxy should be seeing improvement over the course of a year, shouldn’t they?

To date, the Galaxy have allowed 38 goals through 23 games. That puts them 15th in the league in that category. But diving further into those numbers finds the Galaxy have allowed two or more goals in 14 of those games with just nine games in which they allowed a goal or fewer. The club has just six shutouts on the season.

But Bingham, having started all 23 games in goal for the Galaxy, ranks second in Major League Soccer in saves (88) and shots faced (127). Only Montreal’s Evan Busch has more saves (100) and has faced more shots (140). And neither the Galaxy or Montreal are world beaters in this league.

“I have to keep the ball out of the net,” Bingham said after the loss to Colorado. “If you don’t keep the ball out of the net you don’t give your team a chance to win. We are giving up too many shots — some of the most shots in the league and that’s not acceptable. We have the quality where that shouldn’t happen and we need to figure it out with the post-season coming up sooner than later.”

Schmid has toyed with several different formations to try and solidify the back line. With the 3-5-2 his most used formation during the nine-game unbeaten streak. But making Cole, the Galaxy’s captain at 37-year-old, a wingback of sorts, hasn’t exactly kept the Englishman fresh on his feet, and his age and speed are becoming a liability in a role that forces him to play both offense and defense.

And that 3-5-2 formation that Schmid employs remains unbalanced from left to right or front to back — it’s probably overly offensive with the glut of talent the Galaxy have on that side of the ball.

So when the Galaxy go forward, players like Romain Alessandrini and Chris Pontius are given relatively little defensive responsibility and the rest is left to Romney, Michael Ciani, and Jorgen Skjelvik. With Cole usually trying to scramble back on the left-hand side and Romney being left on an island on the right.

And the Galaxy have spent considerable money on this massively underperforming monster — over $3.5-million dollars.

Ciani, brought in as a replacement late in the 2017 season for Jelle Van Damme, is being paid $620k this season. And seems to have been a largely panicked buy from a front office that was caught flat-footed by Van Damme’s departure.

While Skjelvik, brought in on a transfer in the offseason, is the highest paid defender in the league. Earning $1-million for his lackluster performances thus far.

Cole, a man who was probably underpaid for most of his time with the Galaxy, is making $722k this season.

Even Rolf Feltscher, who has only played seven games this season due to a torn pectoral muscle, is making $270k this season.

The money, at least to this point, has not been spent wisely. And the results are clearly evident.

The offense for this Galaxy side is formidable, though. Their 44 goals scored in 2018 puts them as the fourth best offense in the league. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has put 15 goals in the back of the net on the season. But the offense is simply covering for the defense at this point.

There have been too many games where the club has see-sawed back and forth with opponents before Ibrahimovic was able to bail them out with another spectacular goal or two. Games against Los Angeles Football Club and Orlando City come to mind.

And Schmid and the rest of his coaching staff are far from figuring out the problem. In fact, they’ve made it known that the personnel they have on the back line isn’t good enough.

“We’re looking,” Schmid said after the recent win over Orlando City. “I would love to get reinforcements in the back, but we’re limited in terms of the salary cap as to what we can do. We’re in a situation where we probably have to offload a player before we can add a player. We’re trying and just not having any luck doing that.”

With a head coach stating that he doesn’t have the players, even after spending an obscene amount of money, the Galaxy are in a crisis of confidence and talent. And the only solution at this point, without getting rid of any of their talented offensive players, is to wait until the end of 2018 when Ciani’s contract expires and the Galaxy are afforded an International slot and the cash to find a better player.

With the return of Feltscher imminent, perhaps Schmid can find a way to get more defenders on the field without sacrificing his offensive chemistry?

The Galaxy jettisoned more than 15 players from 2017 through the 23 games played in the 2018 season. And in order to complete a rebuilding process that saw so many moving pieces, the Galaxy needed to hit every acquisition right. The bottom line is they missed on defense. And they missed badly.

Skjelvik isn’t worth $250k this season, let alone the $1-million the club is paying him. Ciani is simply a big body that fails to mark his defenders, and Cole is getting too old to play the minutes and the position the Galaxy are forcing him into.

Even Romney, who has taken up a role as the third center back after not beginning the season on the field for the Galaxy, is being squeezed into a modified right-back role, that isn’t his own.

The Galaxy defense as a whole doesn’t anticipate crosses and either fails to step to attackers or steps at the wrong time, allowing for simple, easy, destruction of the back line.

And the defensive midfielders, placed in front of the porous backline, too often pass off responsibility or fail to track back. Allowing attackers to saunter through the middle of the field with little or no pressure.

Jonathan dos Santos and Kitchen are often guilty of simply switching off. While Jonathan dos Santos also has the tendency to simply forgo the effort completely and Kitchen gets overly aggressive when he does have positioning.

But through it all, the Galaxy have preached the ability to learn from their mistakes. But when does that learning begin?

“I don’t know if it’s a change in mentality,” Cole said after a win over Orlando City in which the Galaxy conceded three goals. “Mentally we have to be better right from the start. I can’t remember too many games where we started off really well. Yeah, if we want to keep climbing the table and not kind of rely on Ibra we have to start stopping goals from going in.

“We’re going to have to watch videos and kind of understand why we’re conceding goals, we’re not compact enough or we’re too open. The coaches have to sit down and kind of go over why we keep making mistakes or conceding goals.”

With the transfer window closing on August 8, it’s very likely the club will be unable to bring in defensive reinforcements. And if that’s the case Schmid, Kinnear, and the rest of the Galaxy coaching staff and front office better hope that the lessons this team have been learning all season, finally come home as experience and knowledge.

If not, the Galaxy can write off any deep run into the playoffs. In fact, just getting to playoffs might be an adventure in itself.