Major League Soccer's schedule certainly hasn't given D.C. United an easy bounce-back game to help them recover from their elimination from the CONCACAF Champions League. Instead of lining up against one of the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the Black-and-Red are on the road against the LA Galaxy, playing a team they haven't beaten on the road in over 10 years. LA lost some big names in Omar Gonzalez and Juninho in the offseason, but they've made up for it with some big names from Europe.
How can small-budget, plucky United compete with that?
Make set pieces count
LA, to put it kindly, was not good at defending Santos Laguna's set piece service. To put it more honestly, they were an abysmal, disorganized mess. The Galaxy isn't a particularly small team, but no one seemed to know their marking assignments, and the rehearsed movements from Santos - a team that isn't exactly stocked with huge targets - created 2 goals on corners, and probably could have had 2 more in the second leg. The first leg was similar, but the Mexican side just wasn't as sharp in front of goal that time around.
In particular, what Santos succeeded with was hard runs, misdirection, and setting picks. They managed to get targets free so often that they weren't having to win a battle for the ball. Santos used decoys to lure enough LA players away from where the ball was going or to distract from the main target, and goalkeeper Dan Kennedy seemed more hesitant than in the past.
United's attack, to use a phrase we've used a lot this offseason, is a work in progress. However, they've seemed fairly clever about finding Steve Birnbaum on set pieces. Even if LA uses their tallest player (Jelle Van Damme) on Birnbaum, United will have options like Bobby Boswell to look for. The Galaxy will surely have spent a lot of time working on this, but it's doubtful that they can get things right so quickly given that they were simply horrific on this front in the CCL.
Overload the middle
Nigel De Jong is going to be great in MLS, but he has a tremendous amount of work to do thanks to the impulses of the rest of LA's midfield. Thanks to Steven Gerrard's disinterest in defensive involvement and a lack of support from the wide midfielders, United should look to overload the Galaxy down the middle. Whether via forwards dipping into the midfield or wide midfielders running inside, the idea should be to leave de Jong with an impossible number of options to cope with without help.
Santos made sure to offer options down the middle constantly in both legs, and outside of set pieces they created plenty of threats by going right up the gut. Until LA gives de Jong some actual help somewhere in the midfield, the low level of defensive involvement from everyone else in their front six makes his job extraordinarily difficult. United needs to be sure they take advantage of catching LA before they've figured this out.
Good defensive spacing
The Galaxy have some big problems due to their unbalanced roster, as we've already discussed. However, that doesn't mean they can't still hang a few goals on any opponent who has defensive problems of their own. Robbie Keane's movement off the ball is as good as it gets in MLS, while Giovani dos Santos would be a dominant player on a team in which he was paired with more compatible players. These two have the individual quality to break any unprepared defense down with or even without the ball.
Meanwhile, Gyasi Zardes has remained a goalscoring threat despite having to play on the right wing since Gio came to town, and Emmanuel Boateng offers tremendous speed down the left. If Boateng isn't in, Sebastian Lletget only managed to score 7 goals in an 11 game span at one point last season. Gerrard may not defend, but he still looks like a creator and can pick out a long-range pass to catch teams off-guard. And let's not forget the movement of a potential sub like Mike Magee, or Jose Villarreal's creativity off the bench.
LA beats teams by combining the very high soccer IQs of their forwards and central midfield, great speed on the wings, and by spreading skillful passers and finishers all over the field. They confuse you with an abundance of threats. If you key on Keane, you're probably cheating into the middle, which means you can expect Zardes to get in behind on the right. If you think you have dos Santos contained, you've probably lost Keane running a channel. If you have the forwards both marked well enough, Gerrard probably has the space to rip a shot on goal.
The Galaxy have a flawed roster, but that doesn't mean they aren't still one of the best attacking teams in MLS. If United's defensive spacing throughout their back four and their midfield four isn't strong all game long, Andrew Dykstra is going to be a busy man. Communication will be key, as will awareness and speed of thought. LA only needs to get you to buy their misdirection for a split second.
Attack down the right
Ashley Cole is 35 and has previously indicated that he would consider a move to MLS as the equivalent of quitting professional soccer to chill on a beach. On top of that, he left Mexico before LA's CCL loss to fly to Rome for the birth of his child, and has had to get back to LA from there and focus on this game. I'm sure the Galaxy did their due diligence and have some assurances that Cole is interested in actually trying hard in MLS, but his age and the busy week indicate that he could be ripe to be picked on.
The Black-and-Red haven't done enough yet to get Patrick Nyarko going on the right wing, and Nyarko himself has chosen a passive option too often. United needs Nyarko running at opposing left backs, and they need to be smart enough to get him isolated before setting those moments up. This shouldn't be too hard given that, between Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, and Taylor Kemp, LA should be more wary of the opposite wing. United needs to draw LA towards that side before moving the ball swiftly out to Nyarko and get the Ghanaian doing what he does best. It's no coincidence that one of his only aggressive moves on the dribble won a penalty kick against Queretaro.
Elsewhere, they'll want to add some variation in by having Acosta and/or Espindola pulling out to the right some of the time. Luciano Acosta's speed and quick feet should make him a very tricky test for Cole, while Espindola has a knack for finding a way past his man on either wing to cross to the back post. That could become particularly useful with Lamar Neagle very likely to play (possibly even start) on the left flank.