When the LA Galaxy were forced to scramble for a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal with Toronto FC, there were excuses built in for Bruce Arena's side. After all, it was on a questionable-looking turf surface, and it was far and away the biggest game TFC has ever had. In that light, and considering the quality Toronto showed going forward, coming back from two down looked like an acceptable result.
When the LA Galaxy lost 3-1 at home to Real Salt Lake in their MLS opener last weekend, there were still some excuses available. RSL is right up there with anyone in the league, and Bruce Arena took responsibility for not adding in enough fresh players after a tough game and the ensuing long trip back from Canada. It was still a surprising result, but not that surprising.
When the LA Galaxy lost 2-1 at home to TFC and were unceremoniously dumped out of the CCL by a team that isn't even a popular pick to make the MLS playoffs, the only excuse left was a blown offside call that robbed Mike Magee of a legitimate goal while the score was still 0-0. Exaggerations over how many shots Milos Kocic faced aside, the fact is that a poor start to the season was not in the script.
These guys are supposed to stroll through the MLS season, leaving mangled, battered, beaten opponents in their wake. If you believed the pundits, LA's average game was going to be roughly a 7-0 win in which the opponent attempted no shots, the Galaxy retained 85% possession, and the opposing coach retired by the 25th minute after coming to the realization that the game had been perfected and nothing more could be accomplished in the sport of soccer. The absence of Omar Gonzalez was brushed off - not by many Galaxy fans or the club itself, but everyone else pretty much ignored it - as a minor trifle, like having to wait an extra 3 seconds for a delicious, properly poured pint of Guinness on St. Patrick's Day.
That hasn't panned out. The reality is that LA has a draw and two losses to show for their efforts in 2012. They've been eliminated from the CCL by a team with significant problems of their own. One of the only clubs supposedly with any hope of challenging them marched into their house and, with the game on the line, fired off three goals. The Galaxy have conceded seven times in three games (more than any three-game stretch of theirs in 2011).
Oh, and they're playing their fourth game in a 12-day span this Sunday when D.C. United, after a full week of working on some much-needed cohesion, comes to the Home Depot Center.
Like last week, United will face an opponent that offers few questions in terms of their formation. Unlike Sporting Kansas City, however, we'll be looking at a far more customary flat 442:
A ton of question marks, yet none of these players appear on the injury report. What gives? Arena said last week that RSL's goals were attributable to mistakes based on fatigue, and that he should have used more second-choice players for that game. The Galaxy mixed in their bench regulars throughout last season, and things went pretty well for them.
The question marks, then, are about how LA wants to approach this game. If Arena is worried about his team's confidence, or the inevitable "Galaxy in crisis!!!!!!!" talk that will come if LA loses a third straight home game, or if he simply wants his players to work things out on the field, he'll call on most (probably not all) of the above group.
If, however, Arena is worried about tired players getting injured and has confidence in his full squad, he may use a large handful of non-starters. New signing Marcelo Sarvas seems likely to start somewhere - possibly for David Beckham, or even for Landon Donovan on the right, but most likely in place of Juninho - simply because he has high-level experience and was slated to be a starter until Juninho's return from Sao Paulo. Sarvas did not appear in the CCL because he is ineligible (having played for Alajuelense in the group stage), and didn't even play the full 90 against RSL.
Other potential starters include Chad Barrett (for either striker), Paolo Cardozo (on the left instead of Mike Magee), or Pat Noonan (up front or on either wing), or Dan Keat (at right back instead of Sean Franklin). Michael Stephens would be in line for significant minutes, but he is with Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, and the rest of the Olympic team. I wonder what their bet on Sunday's result will be?
That leaves us with whoever will partner DeLaGarza. This has been the single biggest issue that has undermined the Galaxy thus far in 2012. Arena is not only missing Gonzalez, but is also waiting on Brazilian center back Leonardo (who is also recovering from an ACL tear and won't be back until at least May). His alternatives are Chivas USA/NYRB/TFC (yes, he's played for all of MLS's dumbest teams!) castoff Andrew Boyens or rookie Tommy Meyer.
Boyens has a big edge in experience, but is possibly the slowest player in all of MLS and has agility to match. If Boyens were a standout at reading the game, he might be able to mitigate those flaws, but he's no better than mediocre in terms of soccer IQ. If he gets the start, United should look to get after him in multiple ways: Dwayne De Rosario should look to fool him into leaving openings for shooting or passing chances, Hamdi Salihi should exploit his sluggishness in making runs for others to reward, and Chris Pontius should have a field day cutting inside and forcing Boyens to try and tackle a far faster player. The only thing we should not do is hook high crosses in, because Boyens will eat those for lunch. Everything else should work out well.
Meyer, on the other hand, has decent speed but is lacking in focus and in physical strength. Wednesday's game saw him culpable for both TFC goals: On #1, he ball-watched for too long and ended up even (rather than goal-side) of Ryan Johnson on a lofted ball that should have been handled fairly easily. On #2, Johnson muscled him off with ease before setting up Nick Soolsma for the winner. If Meyer plays, I'd like to see Salihi go out of his way to be near him throughout, because The Bomber will have no problem doing the same things Johnson did (and is a better finisher).
Going back to Pontius for a second, he should be relentless when he gets the ball at his feet. Franklin's positioning is suspect, and I've outlined pretty clearly what's going wrong in the spot next to him. It's a huge game for Party Boy, because he'll have significant defensive duties (helping Daniel Woolard out against Donovan, as well as dealing with Franklin's overlapping runs), but when we attack, we need to get the ball to him on a regular basis.
Not to draw too fine a point on it, but TFC picked on these two players every chance they got, and three of their four goals came as a result. The other goal? A corner that was poorly dealt with, something that is usually the sphere of center backs. If United can't score a goal at the HDC given the sieve-like state of the Galaxy defense, we have further to go than I thought.
Defensively, the big keys for United will be staying dialed in for 90 minutes, as well as applying enough pressure in the midfield that LA can't play the longer passes they thrive on. The Galaxy are a possession team that wait for teams to leave them enough time to size up a mid-to-long range pass, and then just look for the run from someone. Sounds simple, but they have some of the best off-the-ball players in the league - that's Donovan's best asset in my book, and Keane, Buddle, and Magee are also excellent in that department - and multiple players who can hit the deadly pass. The killer ball for LA's goal against TFC was served up not by Beckham or Juninho, but by Magee. Any lapse from our back four will be met with a run from LA, leaving us in a lot of trouble if the pressure on the ball isn't right.
That means that the DC midfield will have to outwork LA, while also accounting for players dropping off the midfield line. Beckham loves to do this, because you find yourself in space that has been conceded by teams worrying about the other attacking weapons, and because attacking midfielders and forwards don't generally pressure quite as hard as other players. Going away from goal actually opens up his options, so the gap we leave between midfield and our forwards can't be a big one.
Branko Boskovic will have plenty of chances to hit through balls, but in this game his work when we don't have the ball will be just as vital alongside Marcelo Saragosa, Stephen King, Lance Rozeboom, or whoever steps in for Kitchen. United looked a bit better playing a flatter midfield against KC, and that might help against LA. However, the vital thing is knowing when to stay flat and when to step higher up so Beckham and co. are unable to play the pass they want to play. If Beckham is playing the ball back to a defender or going short, we're doing the job correctly.
This game is going to be a battle of the details. If United can consistently anticipate runs from LA while cutting out the long passes and not fouling often - Beckham is still Beckham, and our late concession last week began with an avoidable foul - we'll have every chance of stifling the Galaxy attack. Going forward, if we can improve our simple possession from last week and exploit the horribly obvious problem with LA's back four, we'll have chances. If, however, we aren't paying enough attention, we're going to suffer in defense and make mistakes with the ball.
Finally, I should note the mental side of things. LA looked complacent until TFC went up 2-0 in Toronto, and then did it again for most of the 2-1 loss at the HDC. That leads to mental lethargy, which mostly translated on the field to sub-par effort and poor discipline within their formation. The gaps between the lines were too big, and the gaps from side to side were also uncharacteristically big. There was a certain slowness to everything LA did.
That may or may not change Sunday night. The Galaxy had entered the season far more focused on the CCL and the RSL game than United's visit. Now, however, anything short of a win will be seen as a further letdown. Arena had probably been planning an Open Cup-style lineup for this game, but now probably has little choice but to use most of his regulars.
If United can start the game well and apply pressure, LA might simply not have the legs or the confidence to do much about it. If, however, they are allowed to play themselves into the game, we could end up as the first team to feel the wrath of what should be an outstanding attack. If we can prevent LA from forgetting about their poor form and go full throttle after a tired side, we could be looking at three points. If not, however, Joe Willis will be getting a lot of work.