The 2010 Los Angeles Galaxy come to RFK with the best player in MLS, Landon Donovan. They have the best goalscorer (Edson Buddle). They have the best coach (Bruce Arena). Their defense has let up just seven goals all season, easily the best in MLS. They probably have the best goalkeeper (Donovan Ricketts) as well. There's a couple potential national teamers on their back line (Omar Gonzalez and Sean Franklin), a rookie of the year candidate starting on one flank (Michael Stephens), and the most exciting teenager in MLS this side of Andy Najar (Tristan Bowen). Oh, and they are easily the deepest team in the league, covering for Donovan and Buddle's absence during the World Cup with something approaching ease. This is a team that can turn to 3 different veterans with over 40 caps for the United States (Eddie Lewis, Jovan Kirovski, and Clint Mathis) as well as another with over 20 (Chris Klein).
When I try to think of what advantages DC United will have tonight, I'm forced to really stretch. What if LA treats this like just another road trip, another irritating summer game played in hot weather in between right now and when their juggernaut of a team has to get serious? Sadly, LA probably already had their one throwaway game of July just last week, losing in New England to the Revolution. In fact, LA has actually lost their last two competitive games (they were knocked out of the Open Cup by Seattle a few days before their loss at Gillette Stadium). Maybe they've hit some kind of wall? Yeah, but even if they have, we're still the same team that has just one goal in our 4 league games since the World Cup break ended. If we struggle to score against regular MLS teams, how are we going to get anything against the fortress that is LA's goal?
Feeling excited yet? Read on to find out what United must do to have any hope in tonight's game:
1. Maintain possession whenever possible. Against Seattle, one would have been forgiven for thinking that we were actively trying to give the ball away all night long. We got away with it for 89 minutes, but ended up paying the price in the end. LA will be much more ruthless in punishing turnovers, so we really have to do a much, much better job of keeping the ball. This is obviously easier said than done; the Galaxy back four is extremely organized and intelligent, and both Chris Birchall and Juninho in LA's engine room cover a ton of ground. Nonetheless, keeping the ball is job #1 for every DC United player tonight. That goes from Troy Perkins (who sent an alarming number of goal kicks and clearances astray against the Sounders) all the way to the forwards.
Possession isn't just a function of passing accurately. It's just as vital to make good runs without the ball so that you can be open for easy passes, rather than forcing someone to have to hit a surgically precise pass every time. All over the field, we need people moving to make themselves available or to move defenders around in an effort to open up a different option. This isn't something we can overlook; if we commit even half the number of turnovers that we did against Seattle, LA will tear us apart.
2. Don't sit back in fear. For one thing, LA would love it if we conceded possession and let them come at us. They've got the better offense, and they start a whole squad of smart players that have the patience to wait for us to get one thing wrong. One overly-large gap, one miscommunication, one botched mark, and we're risking a goal against. The longer we let LA probe our defense, the more likely they'll be to break through. It's also not in this team's nature, nor is it something Onalfo enjoys. We probably won't beat LA playing as ourselves, but we definitely won't beat them if we try to be something we're not.
3. Keep things narrow. If Donovan starts, he'll probably be on one flank or another, which will be a big problem for either of our outside backs. Devon McTavish won't have the speed to keep up with Donovan, and Jordan Graye is simply too inexperienced to deal with Donovan's intelligent off-the-ball movement. On the opposite side, we'll be dealing with Stephens, who has quietly racked up seven assists as a rookie.
How do you deal with such an accomplished pair of wingers? One way is to make sure you keep things compact. That means maintaining tight spacing between the defense and midfield, as well as having our wide players pinch inside when we don't have the ball. You more or less concede defending the wings in order to crowd your opponent out in the middle. This forces your opponent to cross every time rather than open things up with a combination or an attack on the dribble. It also means that, if they pass the ball back into the middle, we'll have a crowd waiting to force them to play away from goal. Forcing LA into a predictable pattern of attack is our best bet to keep them from scoring.
4. Try to exploit our wide match ups when going forward. On one side, Najar will be up against Todd Dunivant. Dunivant's about as smart as MLS left backs come, but he can be beaten with raw speed. If we can pick Najar out with an early ball, we can force Dunivant into a foot race with the Little Warrior, and that's a race Najar will win most of the time.
On the other side, Chris Pontius will be up against Sean Franklin, and the approach there will be different. Franklin is very fast, so you can't just send the ball down the wing and hope someone in black gets to it first. Instead, what everyone on the field needs to look for is when Franklin comes into the attack. If we can win the ball during an LA attack in which Franklin has joined in aggressively, there will be a gap waiting for us. These situations are when we should attack that side of the field. If Pontius is not near that space (a possibility, since dealing with Franklin's overlap is going to be primarily his responsibility), one of our forwards will need to see things developing and drift over there.
5. Score in the first half. It's easy to just say this, like goals can be conjured out of thin air. However, DC has proven time and again to be awful without a lead going into the second half. LA has the collective patience to wait the game out and pick up a goal whenever we happen to hand them one. United, for whatever reason, does not have that patience as a group. When we play reasonably well but don't score, we invariably get away from what was working for us. Our opponent adjusts, and we fail to respond accordingly. In short, things generally go awry. Perhaps Branko Boskovic can help calm this team down and keep the group on task, but until I see that happen I have to assume this pattern will hold. As a result, getting a lead before halftime seems to be the only way we know how to win.
6. Chip a few balls over their center backs. Gonzalez and Berhalter, for all of their good qualities, are not fast players. While we lack genuine speed up front, we do have a couple of forwards (Santino Quaranta and Danny Allsopp) that should be able to consistently outpace that pair. There probably won't be space to play too many through balls down the center of the Galaxy defense, but there may be time to go for the simpler lob over their back four. This applies especially to Berhalter, who is the slower of the two and also lines up next to Dunivant (the slower outside back). It might not be that pretty, but who really cares?
A well-placed ball over the top might also draw Ricketts off his line. If he has one weakness, it's that he can be a bit impulsive when it comes to charging down loose balls outside the box. A ball that sits up just right could see us with an open net to look at. Plus, any foul that happens once we get someone onto one of these passes would be a candidate for a red card. With yet another hot, humid night predicted, going down a man would likely be more of a problem than it normally is. Yes, planning your strategy in part on hopes that your opponent gets a red card is desperate, but isn't that what we are right now?
Before we finish, here's LA's likely formation:
Donovan and Stephens are both capable of playing on either wing, so they could easily switch throughout the game. If Arena is looking to give any normal starters a rest, we could see local product AJ DeLaGarza at right back, Leonardo at center back, Alex Cazumba at left midfield, Klein at either right-sided position, Kirovski in virtually every midfield or forward position, Mathis in central midfield or underneath a striker, Alan Gordon up front, Dema Kovalenko in a holding role, or Lewis down the left flank. In any case, LA won't lose much by playing a couple of these so-called back ups. Even if Arena decides to send out a full reserve squad, we'll have to be at our best to scratch out a win.