Brittany Campbell

Recap: Galaxy appear headed in the right direction

CARSON, Calif. – The Galaxy drew 1-1 with Toronto FC on Saturday in the club’s first official preseason game of 2019 in front of 11,492 onlookers who braved cold and damp conditions at newly renamed Dignity Health Sports Park.

The club saw a cohesive 70 minutes from a mostly first-team lineup. The scoreline, while unflattering to the casual observer after both teams traded own goals in the second half, was more than satisfactory for the Galaxy’s first foray into 2019.

The Galaxy, for most of the night, were the aggressors with a patient attack while Toronto, playing confident, defensive soccer, tried to stretch the home team on the counter attack.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (precautionary), Giovani dos Santos (muscle injury), Sebastian Lletget (muscle injury) and Ola Kamara (illness) all missed the match.

The absences of Ibrahimovic and Kamara were most notable as the Galaxy failed to mount much of an attack.

MLS veteran Chris Pontius tried to fill the shoes of Ibrahimovic and was paired with unsigned first-round draft pick Emil Cuello (chosen 19th out of Southern Methodist University), who took over for Kamara. Pontius was consistent in his work rate but the Toronto defense, and especially center back Laurent Ciman, did well to keep him quiet.

Cuello showed moments of technical ability and some first-time-professional nerves, but was comfortable in tight spaces, quick with his feet and settled into his spot underneath Pontius rather well.

The majority of the attack, however, centered on the outside midfield of Romain Alessandrini and 21-year-old Uriel Antuna. Playing on the left side of the midfield, Antuna used his pace efficiently while his quick, darting movements caused plenty of trouble for the Toronto midfield.

Alessandrini tended to drift inside for most of the first half. He’d take passes out wide and cut inside. And most of the Galaxy’s real combinations came as a result of playing next to Antuna as he traversed the entire field in an attempt to find the ball.

A surprising partner for Antuna was left back Jorgen Skjelvik, who has been moved from his central defense position of a year ago.

With Ashley Cole’s departure for England, Skjelvik, who has played multiple seasons as a left back in his native Norway, looked pacey and confident and understood his role of getting around Antuna on the outside to open space for the midfielder.

Right back Rolf Feltscher, coming off of a minor injury sustained in an intra-squad scrimmage earlier in the week, also exploited space on the right side by running past Alessandrini or filling holes left by Alessandrini’s movements.

The real question on defense for the Galaxy was how 27-year-old Uruguayan center back Diego Polenta – who just signed with the club last Thursday – would fit in on the defensive back line.

After giving up 64 goals in 2018 – tied for fifth-worst in MLS – the Galaxy really needed to find success with him. Polenta did give away some early passes, it clearly was evident he has talent at the position.

And after being personally invited out of his self-imposed, six-month hiatus by new Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, he seems to be motivated and ready for the challenges of MLS.

“I think that he was good and never had problems during the game,” Schelotto told reporters after the game. “He marked well, so maybe after some time he will be even better as he gets to know his teammates and the other teams.

“So he will be better in the future.”

Polenta was calm on defense, positionally accurate, and not afraid to make a challenge when it was needed. And his pairing with center back Daniel Steres – perhaps a bit of a surprise to some – was what the club needed. Steres was efficient with his challenges, strong with his defending and provided outlet passes that set attackers on their way.

“I think we were able to play well,” Schelotto said of the match. “Maybe in the last minutes we changed a lot of players and maybe we can fix that.

“I think the team, during the 90 minutes, played pretty good and I am very happy for the players.”

Schelotto kept a mostly first-team lineup on the field for about 60-70 minutes, with Pontius one of only two players (goalkeeper David Bingham was the other) going the full 90. Then a large number of subs came off the bench including, most notably, 16-year-old Efrain Alvarez.

The standout for the Galaxy Academy and last year with USL affiliate Galaxy II entered in the 65th minute and took over for Cuello as the Galaxy pressed higher up the field.

It was that higher press that invited more Toronto counters and led to Galaxy defender Dave Romney’s own goal on an unfortunate deflection in the 87th minute.

The Galaxy will play another preseason game on Saturday, Feb. 16 when they travel to Orange County Great Park to host the Vancouver Whitecaps at 5 p.m. They’re also expected to take part in a closed-door scrimmage with defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United – whose coaching and technical staffs were in attendance for the match against Toronto – sometime this week.

The club still has plenty of questions concerning the makeup and depth of the defense. The Galaxy have only six defenders on the roster with several unsigned or LA Galaxy II players currently on trial. And, as highlighted by the starts for Pontius and Cuello, they still need to explore more options at striker as backups for the Galaxy’s heavyweights.

But the Galaxy’s new technical staff seem to be on pace to have the club ready for their March 2 regular-season opener against the Chicago Fire. And for a first step, the club has made the most of its preseason to date.