Let me tell you about two similar teams. Both sides tend to play a pretty straightforward 442 with a flat midfield that relies on the movement and smarts of their forwards rather than speed or power. Both coaches were involved with the two dynasties of US soccer in the 90s (D.C. United and the Virginia Cavaliers). Both have been a part of MLS Cup winning teams, and both have gone to the World Cup for the United States. They're good friends, and are both quick with a joke.
Of course, that's where the similarities between today's LA Galaxy and today's Black-and-Red end. The Galaxy are two-time MLS Cup champions who are contending for both the Supporters Shield and another Cup. United, meanwhile, is the worst team in MLS (as proven by both the standings and our preposterous 0W-1D-2L record against MLS's other awful teams, Toronto FC and Chivas USA).
As much as there are clear differences between the coaching abilities of Bruce Arena and Ben Olsen - Arena, after all, is clearly the best American coach ever - the bigger issue is player quality. Arena would not be able to get this United squad into the playoffs, and Olsen wouldn't miss the playoffs given the riches of the Galaxy roster. Let's not forget that soccer is, thankfully, still a game far more dependent on good players than it is good coaching. The only current United player that would start in LA would be Nick DeLeon, and that's only because the Galaxy haven't yet worked their customary pre-roster-freeze magic in signing an experienced, class player on the cheap.
The Galaxy are rounding into form, too. While they did lose six times in ten games in May and June, they've recovered to go 6W-1D-3L since, including a 4-2 victory over Supporters Shield frontrunner Real Salt Lake. Two of those losses have come with Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and/or Robbie Keane unavailable due to national team duty, as well.
You can't talk about the Galaxy without talking about those three. All three are starters with their national team, all three make millions as Designated Players, and all three will factor into the Best 11 voting at the end of the season. In fact, LA's most recent problem is that they struggle to win without their superstars. The last Galaxy player to score who doesn't have a seven-figure contract was Gyasi Zardes, way back on July 20th. The Galaxy have played six games and scored eleven goals since then; both Keane and Donovan have five, and Gonzalez has the odd goal to cap it off.
Please take a second to play your smallest violin. Whatever will the poor, poor Galaxy do without their stars? They might have to make use of their outstanding crop of Academy grads! Or rely on the solid core of veterans that they can call on all over the field! Or rotate their almost entirely healthy roster in! Good heavens! LA is right to focus on the fact that they aren't scoring goals without their stars. United fans probably don't have any sympathy, though, since a drunk fan wearing Robbie Keane's shoes would probably start for us right now.
So yeah, LA is really good, and they're healthy, and they're pissed off at MLS for making them play a playoff rival during the international window. Their stars will be available tomorrow. None of these things bodes well for United, who would struggle mightily to beat even the very young Galaxy team that lost last weekend to Colorado.
On the other hand, there are a couple small issues that provide just the tiniest glimmer of hope. LA's road record of 4W-2D-8L is no better than average for MLS, and cross-country trips have always been difficult in this league. If we need any further evidence of that, just look at how United ran out of gas and ideas late against Chivas USA. I mean, we usually don't have many ideas to begin with, but the last 15 minutes of that game were brutal. LA will be flying the same distance to come play us at RFK, and they have to follow it up with a midweek CONCACAF Champions League game against Isidro Metapan to boot. It's a "So you're saying there's a chance!" sort of situation, but at least it's something.
I mentioned LA's unadorned 442. Here's how it'll look Saturday:
The question marks here are down to Arena's preference for the most part. He has of late preferred to play Sean Franklin as a right midfielder, AJ DeLaGarza at right back, and Leonardo at center back. However, the more attacking option would be to drop Leonardo, move DeLaGarza to center back, push Franklin back to his natural right back position, and start winger Hector Jimenez instead. The Galaxy could make things easy on themselves by going on the offensive to try and win this game early, opening the door for defensive substitutions. After all, it's not like you need a Herculean defensive effort to stop United these days. In my mind at least, the pictured lineup has only the slightest edge over the Jimenez-for-Leonardo version in terms of who'll get the call.
The other issue is up top. Donovan and Keane both played two 90-minute games during the international window for the US and Ireland, respectively (and Donovan was dealing with pink eye during the wonderful 2-0 win over Mexico, to boot). Both players have a ton of experience with playing - and playing well - on short rest and after long trips, but if there was ever a good opportunity for Arena to rest them, this is it.
Still, I agree with our friend Josie Becker from LAG Confidential, who came on Filibuster this week to deliver the bad news: Donovan and Keane are more likely than not to start. LA can't afford to let these points slip away given the battle for playoff positioning in the West, and they beat Metapan with reserves home and away in last year's CCL. The opportunity to get a lead on United and then sub these two out is too enticing.
That will leave los Capitalinos to deal with one of MLS's most difficult questions to answer: How do you stop Keane and Donovan? Keane already has 12 goals and 10 assists, and Donovan (eight goals, seven assists) will probably top the 10/10 mark as well. Generally speaking, 10/10 is an outstanding mark for any MLS player; to have two guys hit it is exceedingly rare. Even teams as good as RSL have struggled to come up with a good answer for this problem.
The issue isn't even the fact that they're both outrageously skilled; it's that they have elite soccer IQ. This may well be the smartest forward pairing in MLS history, and opposing defenses simply can't think quickly enough or anticipate their movement off the ball in time. Simply put: In order to get a result against the Galaxy, this has to be the most mentally sharp showing by the United back four in 2013. Easy, right? Sigh.
The best outcome for United is that Keane is contained and becomes a set-up man, while Donovan is hopefully just tired from playing while sick. Keane is still an excellent playmaker, but he also has a short fuse with his teammates. Those guys often let him down by not understanding what he wants of them quickly enough, and the result is an angry, gesticulating Keane trying to pass to nervous, somewhat discouraged wide men. It still works sometimes, but it's better than the alternative. Yes, I realize this suggestion relies on Donovan just being sick. That's the kind of situation United will be in. We have to be very good, but also very lucky.
Of course, soccer is a team sport, and you don't shut down the Galaxy attack with your defenders and goalkeeper doing all the work. The midfield and forwards have to contribute to the defensive effort as well by disrupting possession and pressing the ball whenever possible.
Not coincidentally, this is where the Galaxy put teams in a catch-22. If your plan is to press high and harass the outstanding Galaxy central midfield of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas, you run the enormous risk of LA breaking your pressure and putting Donovan or Keane in behind. LA's principle mode of attack starts with an early through ball springing the counter, with the star forwards taking advantage of the ensuing chaos and defensive isolation.
On the other hand, if you sit deep, the Galaxy will gladly string passes together and wait for a seam to show up in your bunker. Juninho and Sarvas are good at maintaining a tempo rather than playing too slowly, while Donovan and Keane are more than comfortable with playing quick combinations to draw defenders out of position at the top of the box.
Given these two dangerous choices, I'd prefer to see United press and risk the counter. I'd rather bank on United's collective work rate - which has somehow not really dropped off despite the constant string of discouraging results - than I would our organization and communication. That's not to say that pressing doesn't require those things, but sitting deep will likely leave United with a ticking clock before an inevitable Galaxy goal. Being aggressive against a team coming off of a long flight might make this game disorganized and more about will power than it is about brains, and the former is a category we're closer to LA's level in. Tackling and enthusiasm, we can do. Topping the Galaxy in a slow-paced chess match? We might as well forfeit.
There is something of a lesson to take from Colorado's two recent wins over the Galaxy , though as I said before both came with LA's best players out of town. Despite playing two different formations (4231 at home, 442 away), the Rapids used Nick LaBrocca as a left midfielder both times out. The idea was to have a wide player tuck inside regularly to outnumber Juninho and Sarvas in central midfield. In Colorado, the Rapids went as far as effectively having four players in central midfield, with a right winger and indefatigable left back Chris Klute providing the width.
That seems extreme, but it's not a bad idea given how good the two Brazilians are at controlling games. While Perry Kitchen was arguably the only player to emerge with anything to feel good about from the Chivas USA debacle, we have to face the fact that a) we're likely starting our third-choice central midfielder alongside him, b) that player, Lewis Neal, is not a natural central midfielder, and c) even with our best pairing, we'd be at a significant disadvantage just going 2v2.
No matter who plays in our engine room, they're going to need help. One option is to emulate the Rapids but from the right instead of the left. DeLeon could play on the right as basically a right-center midfielder, with Chris Korb bombing up the right flank to provide the width. Or, if John Thorrington is fit, we could have Lewis Neal play a narrow left midfield role with Dennis Iapichino coming up the wing. United could also drop Luis Silva deeper to both help the central midfield defensively and also take advantage of the fact that LA is one of the few MLS teams to play without a more traditional deep defensive midfielder. In any case, something has to be done or LA will dictate the terms of the game from start to finish.
Defensively, LA is probably going to be a tough nut to crack. Aside from being the best center back in MLS, Omar Gonzalez is also something of a talismanic figure for the Galaxy defense. It's easy to play better alongside stronger players, but the impact Gonzalez's mere presence has on the confidence of his teammates can't be understated. The addition of Panama's #1 Jaime Penedo over Carlo Cudicini - a great move to fix what was always going to be a rare misstep for the Galaxy - has removed the one reason LA had to question themselves at the back.
A lot will be determined by which players get the call. Gonzalez can dominate in the air by himself, and when he's paired with Leonardo, the idea of crossing in the air is pretty much off the table. However, at that point playing on the ground and focusing on movement and close control can have dividends. While Gonzalez has underrated speed and quickness, Leonardo is your stereotypical lumbering center back.
However, if DeLaGarza is preferred - and that's who I'd send out in Arena's shoes - trying to beat LA on the ground becomes troublesome. In that case, United should go to the wings, where Franklin hasn't been that great in 2013 and Dunivant can be had on the dribble. Franklin is a player you beat with your head rather than your legs, as he has the strength and recovery speed to deal with things like people just knocking the ball past him and chasing it down. Dunivant, on the other hand, is not quite as fast and can also be fooled into diving into tackles. I hate to pile pressure on DeLeon, but his contribution down the right hand side - whether it's on the dribble himself or if he draws Dunivant in before springing an overlapping Korb - is going to be huge for United.
If United can survive the early stages with LA at their best, and if Arena does us a favor by subbing out Donovan and/or Keane, we might be able to spring a surprise. LA's second-choice players have failed to make much of an impact, with guys like Colin Clark - largely culpable for Colorado's game-winner last weekend out of sheer disinterest in defending, despite having come off the bench - coming nowhere close to matching the level of LA's starters. It's no coincidence that LA has four 1-0 losses this season, all of which involve a second half goal (with three coming in the final 15 minutes).
More from Black And Red United:
- Dos a Cero: My unique view from the capo stand at USA-Mexico
- D.C. United vs. LA Galaxy lineup: Is a diamond in our future?
- World Cup Qualifying: United States vs. Mexico - USA WINS DOS A CERO
- Richmond Kickers Nate Robinson, Alex Lee, and Juan Arbelaez training with D.C. United
- Filibuster Podcast - Week 28: Resigned sighing, LA Galaxy, and USA vs. Mexico