Optimists will look at the timing of this D.C. United game against the LA Galaxy and be thankful. LA, having flown across the country, is missing Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes, and Jaime Penedo. Keane and Zardes, in particular, would both individually be huge absences: Keane is either the best or second-best forward in MLS, while no one on the Galaxy roster has the mix of speed, size, and exuberance that Zardes brings to the table. These two scored 35 goals in 2014! In sports, wasting a gift like this is something good teams don't do. "Sweep the leg" and all that.
Pessimists will note, however, that it's still the Galaxy. They're still the most organized team in MLS - they finished tied with United for MLS's stingiest defense last year, and they did that without Bill Hamid - and they still have a very good midfield. They can replace Zardes with Alan Gordon, who may not be as good as Zardes but still scores regularly and knows he has to keep things very simple to succeed.
They also haven't lost to United in a very, very long time. Prepare for some very ugly news: United is winless in the last ten meetings between these two clubs. Barack Obama was not the president the last time the Black-and-Red knocked LA off. Marcelo Gallardo scored. Since then, the Galaxy are on a 5W-5D-0L run against United and have scored 21 goals.
Naturally the truth is somewhere in between: Yes, the Galaxy are very good, but getting to face them during this international window is a gift. United still believes they are one of MLS's truly good teams, but the 2015 results haven't quite lived up to that belief. This is the kind of game where you prove it.
The reason this still won't be an easy game is primarily due to LA's ability to defend as a team. It's not about stars - no one's trying to move heaven and earth to trade for Dan Gargan or Leonardo - but about team organization. LA gives up the fewest shots per game in MLS, but more importantly they force bad shots. They're among MLS's best teams at making their opponent shoot from the right or left third of the field rather than down the middle. United, meanwhile, has the fourth-highest percentage of shots from the central third of the field; if LA succeeds in forcing United to take pot-shots from wide, don't count on seeing the eons-long winless streak end.
LA also does a great job of dictating where games are played. They've spent the third-most time in their opponent's half, and the third-least time in their own defensive half. Part of that is simple fear; teams see Keane and Zardes across from them and tend to sit in a bit more than usual. Most of it is that LA tends to own the ball and make teams defend whether they want to or not. If United is as sloppy with the ball as we saw in New Jersey - 69% pass completion, which is well below adequate - LA will be able to use possession to protect a defense that doesn't even need protecting.
This week, United has all but spelled out an intention to press more aggressively and take more risks, but the Galaxy have a knack for breaking pressure. It's nothing complicated: If your players can play one- and two-touch soccer without making mistakes, you should be able to escape even a committed pressing team. A major factor in this regard is Juninho, who is far and away the most important player for United to shut down tomorrow.
As we discussed yesterday, Juninho is playing deeper this year than in 2014. That's an issue for United, who doesn't have anyone in that region of the field in their normal 442. As much as restoring and building upon last year's qualities means not changing formations, I think this week might require a one-off move away from the flat 442 and into either a diamond - so Davy Arnaud can stay high and make Juninho's night miserable - or into a 4411, where either Chris Rolfe or Chris Pontius (who looked better having switched roles in the second half last week) will have the job of preventing LA's defenders from finding the little Brazilian.
LA's defenders aren't just going to give the ball away, but it's much better to force them to pass to any other field player than Juninho. He sets the tempo for the Galaxy, but he's also the source of the kind of long ball that has cost United multiple goals thus far in 2015. In other words, United needs to make sure that playing through Juninho is too difficult to be bothered with.
With Gordon up top, LA will have more of an aerial threat on the field than they normally do. This one's more cut-and-dried: Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum have to make sure that Gordon isn't in control of where his knockdowns end up. It's not so much that they have to authoritatively head everything away - that'd be great, but requiring perfection in soccer usually ends in disappointment - but that Gordon can't be finding Jose Villarreal (his likely forward partner at the start) or the Galaxy midfield with ease. If United succeeds in cutting Juninho out of the game to any degree, that means we'll see a few more long balls towards Gordon than LA would normally play.
That aerial threat is also notable because LA is going to rely on Stefan Ishizaki as a creator tonight. Ishizaki likes to stay wide and get within 20 yards of the endline before crossing. He's not going to play many deep crosses, and while he can drift inside to be a threat he seems better off staying wide, getting around the left back, and whipping the ball in. Taylor Kemp needs to occupy him with forward runs, first of all, but he's also got to be able to get out and challenge Ishizaki without over-committing. That means the rest of United's back four needs to adjust to when Kemp has to fire out wide, and Perry Kitchen needs to be alert to drop quickly to fill in the gaps.
On the left we're likely to see Baggio Husidic, who isn't really a natural left midfielder. He's going to play narrow and look to combine, and the big threat from him is that he's good at getting into the box and creating danger with late runs. With Ishizaki on the field, Husidic's aerial ability at the back post is going to be a factor if United gives Ishizaki the time to find him.
Husidic tucking inside will be a factor in a couple of ways. It will give Robbie Rogers the space to overlap, which can be a really destabilizing factor for opposing defenses. Nick DeLeon is going to have to keep tabs on Rogers, because otherwise LA will look to create 2v1s against Sean Franklin The other issue for DeLeon is going to be the fact that Husidic will be inside with Juninho and Mika Vayrynen, creating temporary 3v2 overloads in central midfield. DeLeon has to make sure those are actually 3v3s. In terms of work rate and soccer IQ, the battle between DeLeon and Husidic is going to be vital for United.
Going forward, United should pick on Rogers. For as much progress as he's made as a left back, he's still not that solid of a defender. LA hides him by keeping the ball and putting teams on their heels, so it's all about his overlapping ability going forward and not his actual defensive qualities. He's beatable 1v1, and he can be just a little bit slow when presented with a lot of moving parts. He's also likely to be alongside Leonardo, who is usually a liability and isn't fast enough to cover when things go wrong out on the right.
Set pieces are going to be really interesting, because LA is not good at defending them (watch the goal they gave up against Houston last week, where several things go wrong at once) but is good at attacking them. With Gonzalez and Gordon (and likely Edson Buddle towards the end), the Galaxy will have plenty of good targets and between Ishizaki and Villareal they'll have good service too. With Brian Rowe starting in goal, the Galaxy won't have the safety blanket that is a keeper who can claim crosses in traffic, so United shouldn't shy away from aiming right for the heart of the penalty area on corners.
Ultimately a good result from United will come from winning - not just neutralizing, but winning - the midfield. If United can keep Juninho from dominating the game's tempo, the Galaxy will not have Keane's intelligence nor the speed of Zardes to use as a workaround. Without those two on the field, United needs to be the aggressor and deny LA the space to play. The Galaxy can often protect their goal without actually having to do real defending; it's about time United pinned someone back and made them deal with sustained pressure.