When you’ve lost each of your last three home games like D.C. United has, facing a team that has three straight wins (all on the road) is not the ideal cure. However, that’s the situation United is stuck with, as Curt Onalfo’s all-or-nothing moment - standing up to Jelle Van Damme publicly and privately - has paid off. The LA Galaxy are unbeaten in five games, just beat their archrivals on the road, and have scored nine times in three outings.
That sounds pretty troubling, but life is all about perspective. Yes, the Galaxy are rolling while United is stuck in the mud. Yes, LA has a full week of rest while United has endured a preposterous D.C. to Vancouver to Seattle via bus to Orlando trip, and the news that Patrick Mullins will be out for either a while or a long while.
Steres won't make the trip. Jermaine Jones was back running. He could be available next week. Alessandrini is expected to play this weekend— Kevin Baxter (@kbaxter11) May 30, 2017
That’s two starters out, and a third with at least a minor question hovering over him. The list goes on. Goalkeeper Brian Rowe hurt himself doing individual drills after a team training session, while Clement Diop (his competition for the #1 shirt) is with the Senegalese national team. Baggio Husidic will miss out with a fractured leg, Sebastian Lletget is still out due to the injury he picked up with the USMNT, and Robbie Rogers is missing the entire year due to persistent foot issues.
There had been hope that Giovani Dos Santos would skip tomorrow’s game to join up with Mexico, but he’s going to delay his trip until Sunday. That’s less than ideal news for United, as Dos Santos has 5 goals and 1 assist in LA’s last four matches. It’s not by getting a ton of chances, either. Those goals came via just eleven shot attempts, a fairly absurd success rate.
Jermaine Jones is still out as well; he’ll probably take part in LA’s next game or two, but this one came too early. However, for Onalfo and LA, that actually makes life easier, because there’s no tactical scheme that allows for Dos Santos and Jones to both be themselves. With Jones out, LA has set up a simple 442 that lets GDS wander freely while two holding midfielders hold down the middle with discipline and a true striker occupies the center backs.
With Rowe and Diop both unavailable, former Sporting KC homegrown player Jon Kempin is the only option left for LA. He hasn’t played an MLS match since September 2015, and has just 7 league starts in his career, or basically one game per year since turning pro (Kempin actually signed his HG deal with the Kansas City Wizards, as the rebrand had not yet happened at the time). Despite all that time, and plenty of US under-20 and under-23 caps, Kempin has yet to show that his ceiling is above his current situation, where he’s clearly third choice for Onalfo.
Right back has been an issue all season, as LA was short of real options outside of Rogers coming into the year. Rafael Garcia was used there in March, but over time Onalfo has preferred two different defenders from the Galaxy II team he used to coach. Nathan Smith got the first run of games, but over the last month or so Bradley Diallo (a product of Olympique Marseille’s youth academy) has been preferred. Both players have the classic “utility man” look about them. They’re not particularly bad defensively, but neither looks like a natural at the position.
Dave Romney, another player groomed with Los Dos, will step in for Daniel Steres at center back. Romney has played more at left back during his time with the Galaxy first team, but he’s more at home as a center back. Still, Romney is more of a replacement-level player that you find on most MLS rosters, and United will want to target the right half of LA’s back four as a result.
Van Damme has been more solid since Onalfo pulled him before halftime due to performance issues. He’s still going to freelance a bit, but he’s mostly focusing on his duties at center back first and his ability on the ball second these days. Still, Van Damme’s passing ability and knack for dribbling into the midfield are both a gift and a curse for LA. If United can prevent him from breaking lines to spring counters, they’ve done well. If they can actually turn his comfort on the ball into a few turnovers, they’ll be in even better shape.
Ashley Cole proved doubters (me included) wrong by coming to MLS and being focused and engaged. While he’s lost a step at 36, he’s still mostly been pretty good for LA. However, he’s shown a tendency to ball-watch when marking at the back post. It’s a very odd blind spot for a veteran with his Premier League and Champions League experience, but it’s a recurring story that came up again last week on San Jose’s opening goal. United should be looking to exploit that whenever possible.
Joao Pedro was a notable offseason signing for LA, and while the Portuguese midfielder has had his moments, his 2017 season has been hit-or-miss. The issue? Most of the time, he hasn’t had a viable partner. Joao Pedro is the kind of defensive midfielder who wants to roam and break up plays rather than staying in an anchor role. You can’t be that guy on a team with Jones, though, and it’s no coincidence that Joao Pedro’s best performances have come alongside the injured Husidic.
His partner will be either Garcia - a player the Galaxy had previously tried to repurpose as a right back due to his ceiling in this role - or Jaime Villarreal. Both are tough-tackling players who work hard but are rather limited techmically. Of the two, Villarreal plays with a more obvious edge, while Garcia may have the advantage in terms of speed. In either case, these two are way down LA’s depth chart in central midfield, and the Galaxy should be vulnerable to attacks through the middle all game long.
Where they won’t be weak is on the flanks. Romain Alessandrini has proven to be an excellent signing, putting up 6 goals and 6 assists in 12 games so far since moving over from Marseille. The tricky part about Alessandrini is the wide range of ways he can hurt you. If you take away space to run in behind, he’ll cut inside. If you take away his shot from those spots, he can work a combination to free someone else up. If you shuttle him out wide, he will manufacture a window to fire in a cross. Those numbers are no accident.
On the other side, Emmanuel Boateng may not have Alessandrini’s gifts in terms of shooting or passing, but he has the kind of raw speed that has always been effective in this game. For Boateng to succeed, he doesn’t need to break ankles with a move, or show brilliant vision with a pass. He just needs enough room to touch the ball around his man and take off. The best way to shut Boateng down is to simply make sure someone’s always in his way. If he can’t get up to speed, he’s far easier to deal with.
Dos Santos is in the kind of form that makes his salary seem reasonable. Now that Jones isn’t in the lineup, he has the freedom to roam around between the lines. Onalfo has given him carte blanche, which means we might see him dropping all the way back to pick the ball up from a defender in one moment, before later seeing him out on the touchline, and then staying up high between the center backs.
United is going to have to maintain their defensive organization throughout and communicate well to deal with Dos Santos wandering wherever he pleases. In particular, though, Dos Santos will test whoever ends up in the #6 role, both as a passing threat and with his late runs into the box.
Leading the line is Zardes, who missed a ton of time with a foot injury between last year and this year. He hasn’t been in intimidating form in 2017, either, with 0 goals and 1 assist in 8 appearances (7 starts). Still, Zardes is fast, strong, and knows his role is to occupy center backs and stay high up the field, which clears out room for Dos Santos to do his thing. With his athleticism, Zardes is still a major threat to break out, and United has struggled with similar players this year.
Off the bench, Onalfo will likely turn to Jack McInerney if the Galaxy need to change things up in the attack. McInerney, if he comes in, will most likely go up front, with Zardes moving wide for either Alessandrini (who was limping by the end of last week’s game, and should be considered “probable” rather than a full lock to start) or Boateng, who has played the full 90 just once all year.
Other options include winger Raul Mendiola, a gifted crosser from the right side, forward Ariel Lassiter (whose father Roy scored quite a few goals at RFK in his day), or homegrown attackers Bradford Jamieson and Jose Villarreal. That last name is notable, as the elder Villarreal brother has consistently generated danger whenever given the chance. For whatever reason, both Arena and Onalfo have never really rated him, but he’s a potential game-changer should he make the 18.