D.C. United returns to the field after what most people are treating as the biggest win of the 2011 season to date, facing the Los Angeles Galaxy on national television (FSC, 11pm) tonight. The Galaxy come into the match as MLS's best team overall, with 29 points. While that figure may appear to be padded by the fact that LA has played at least one more game than everyone (in most cases, it's between 2-4 more games), Bruce Arena's side is tops in points-per-game, and are on pace for a gaudy 66 points over the course of the season. Winning at Portland was big, but this is the toughest fixture United has yet faced this season.
The win over Portland was a test of this young team's guts. Could they go into a raucous stadium against a team with a proud home record? Could they overcome the small dimensions and the unfamiliar turf surface? The answer was an impressive "Yes" for United, but that game was the appetizer; tonight is the main course. Guts can take you far in soccer, but the Galaxy will test this team's soccer intelligence. In Portland, United had to avoid being out-fought; against the Galaxy, the trick is to not be out-thought.
As always, we start with a look at the opposing formation, which will be a familiar 442:
The back four should contain no surprises, and Josh Saunders is a capable replacement for Donovan Ricketts, who is with Jamaica for the Gold Cup. Saunders arguably the best back up keeper in MLS, and gets regular minutes due to Ricketts being a bit injury-prone, so LA should be defensively strong as per usual.
The midfield might appear confused above, but it's not as complicated as it looks. David Beckham apparently had enough room in his busy schedule to show up for this one, so he'll return to central midfield. Mike Magee and Chris Birchall will almost certainly play, but could pop up in multiple places. Juninho had to come off for several minutes against the New England Revolution last week with what appeared to be a painful ankle injury, and Arena could opt to rest him in favor of LA's long-term ambitions. If Juninho doesn't play, Arena would likely play Birchall centrally, though Michael Stephens can also play there.
Stephens also figures into the confusion over Magee. If Birchall does play centrally, Magee and Stephens are the likely wide players. Both have experience on either wing, but they also both appear to prefer to play on the left. There is also at least some chance that Uruguayan rookie Paolo Cardozo slots in on the right, but I think Arena will keep him on the bench.
Finally, up front, Chad Barrett has established himself as a starter by offering up his typical hard-working approach. It's the other forward spot that, surprisingly, is up for grabs. Juan Pablo Angel is the big name, but he hasn't played that well in an LA shirt just yet. Miguel Lopez was one of the best players on the field for LA against the Revs, and scored the game's only goal to boot. Don't be surprised if Arena holds Angel in reserve for this one; Lopez - who the Galaxy picked up on loan from Argentine club Quilmes - is a real talent in the withdrawn forward role.
LA plays simple soccer well, and any seasoned observer will tell you that the teams that can play simply and do it well are always difficult. While the absence of Landon Donovan - who also didn't play in the 1-1 draw at RFK - will certainly dull the sharp edge of their attack, this is a team that is just as comfortable grinding out 1-0 wins as they are lighting up the scoreboard.
The key to the Galaxy attack is undoubtedly Beckham. It's not just his set-piece wizardry; it's his ability to play mid- and long-range passes. LA tends to play a classic "short-short-long" style, keeping possession until a forward or winger spots a seam. If Beckham has time to spot the run, he will put the ball exactly where it need to go, so United has a two-part task ahead of them. Part one is to stay tuned in at all times and track the runs of LA's attackers; that means both the more pedestrian runs of their strikers, the deeper runs from their wide men, and even the bursts forward from the fullbacks (particularly Sean Franklin).
Part two is to effectively harass Beckham so that he never has time to lift his head up and spot the runs, or at least lacks the time to line his passes up. That sounds easy, but it's not. Beckham has spent his entire MLS career with teams trying to get in his face and apply pressure on him. On the spacious Home Depot Center field, he'll have plenty of room to drift into spaces before he receives the ball, which means our midfielders will have to anticipate those movements before the pass to Beckham has even been struck.
Anticipation is really the key here defensively. Without Donovan, and with Angel aging and in poor form, there isn't anything obviously special about the Galaxy. They aren't full of powerful athletes like several teams, they lack the technical prowess of Real Salt Lake, and they don't have the elite speed that some teams have. What LA has is a team of extremely smart players who have bought into Arena's system. Johan Cruijff famously said "Football is a game you play with your brain," and that's exactly what the Galaxy does better than anyone in MLS.
There's also the set piece factor. Fouling against LA is just as dangerous as fouling against Portland was, but for different reasons. Where the Timbers offer up an outstanding set of targets, LA has Beckham's surgical delivery. Omar Gonzalez is the only big target on the team, but Beckham's service means that size matters less. The Galaxy's goal at RFK was on a corner, but the header of the ball was Magee, generously listed at 5'9" and not particularly gifted in the jumping department.
Going forward, D.C. will find some joy in the space between the central midfield and center backs, particularly if Birchall is deployed on the right. LA's weakness is lacking bite in central midfield, and Beckham's scowling and fouling are no substitute for someone who defends without relying on anger. However, that's not to say United should attack down the middle; Gonzalez is a player with a national team future, and AJ DeLaGarza is not far removed from the similarly undersized Michael Parkhurst as a center back.
The trick is to enter the attacking third by passing into the middle, then go back wide when going in behind the defense. Franklin and Todd Dunivant are good defenders, but they do go forward. Franklin's relative youth - this is only his third season - and Dunivant's rather soft approach to defending open the door for D.C. to attack the wings, which is our strong suit. If Josh Wolff and either Blake Brettschneider or Charlie Davies play, they'll be able to add to this threat by making runs that start centrally and go wide. All this said, it's not like running at the Toronto FC back line; Franklin and Dunivant are good players, and we're not going to slice them up on a regular basis. There's a reason LA gets so many shut outs.
Ultimately, this game is virtually the exact opposite of the match in Portland. LA is slower and smaller, but they more than make up for it by being smarter and better with the ball. Young teams generally play better in your blood-and-guts games than they do facing more cerebral opponents. Let's not forget that the New York Red Bulls, another team full of smart, experienced players, pulled United apart to score four goals on us. This is a different D.C. team than the side that was thrashed by our archrivals, to be sure, but this LA team is cut from the same cloth. As good as it felt to be the first team in MLS to win at Portland, a result against LA - even without Donovan - would be a more significant achievement.