By Sean Steffen (@seansteffen)
Off Season Nonsense:
The LA Galaxy had an interesting off-season. It started with the release of Omar Gonzalez and Juninho, followed by the pursuit of Ashley "barely still plays soccer" Cole. The Galaxy took a lot of heat for this pursuit when it was reported they would be using TAM, but anger seems to have dissipated when it was announced that price was closer to 300k. In reality, people should still be getting angry that the Galaxy spent 300k on a 35 year old left back of questionable fitness, but the Galaxy narrative machine is simply too strong for such a reasoned fan reaction.
The Galaxy further wasted their money on the head scratching signing of Jeff Larentowicz, who demands far more money than he is worth, free agent money on Mike Magee, despite having one of the most promising young talents in the country in Jose Villarreal providing cover at left mid and forward, and finally, paying high dollar for one of the most overrated keepers in MLS history.
In their frenzy to blow their newly acquired cap space in the most inefficient way possible, the Galaxy actually managed to stumble their way into three key moves. The first was the signing of Emannuel Boateng, a promising young winger who has impressed in preseason. His speed and dribbling ability should offer a new facet to the Galaxy attack, although Sebastian Lletget is still projected as the starting left mid once he recovers from his groin injury.
The second was the use of TAM to acquire Jelle Van Damme from Standard Liege in Belgium. Van Damme is a physical defender who looks to be a real aerial presence and danger on set-pieces, and, for Galaxy fans, it’s best to keep the mind on his talents and not that time he called Oguchi Onyeywu a dirty monkey, which the Galaxy TOTALLY addressed by getting quotes from lots of people not named Jelle Van Damme about how that’s completely in the past. (Fans somehow bought it because, again, the Galaxy narrative machine is all powerful).
The final great move for the Galaxy was the acquisition of Nigel De Jong, who, in addition to providing his trademark brand of physical defensive play in shielding the back line, also brings the pass usage to stabilize an LA midfield that was already seeing 40 fewer passes per game from 2014 to 2015 prior to the loss of Juninho, who saw about 70 passes per game. The Galaxy were dead set on the signing of a defensive midfielder, and luckily they managed to find one who could also pass, as this is the biggest problem facing them (as I will go into in the tactics section).
Despite all their missteps, the Galaxy walked away from the off-season with the LA Times writing a big article on their thriftiness, which really speaks more to the lazy narrative chasing nature of soccer journalism today.
The LA Galaxy went into a full on tail-spin to end the regular season in 2015, and this can primarily be attributed to the tactical missteps of Bruce Arena and his stubbornness to adjust. Arena insisted on playing Giovani dos Santos as a forward, despite the fact that stylistically he operates as a forward in the same underneath space as Robbie Keane, and neither of them are physical enough to offer any kind of hold up play. This, in turn, pushed Gyasi Zardes to the wings where he struggled mightily for lack of a single creative bone in his body. With both playmakers playing up top and little support from behind, the Galaxy created 3.55 fewer shots in the midfield per 90 in 2015 than they did in 2014, making it super easy for teams to sit two defensive mids on Keane and dos Santos and let the Galaxy midfield strangle itself until it gave up the ball, in which case the defense would be exposed thanks to the aggressive attacking posture of the team.
The good news is Arena has finally come to the conclusion that dos Santos needs to be in the midfield creating chances and Zardes up top holding onto the ball and scoring goals, in order for the Galaxy to have a diversified attack. This has been the primary formation throughout pre-season (although Bruce didn’t trust Gio defensively enough to play it against Santos) and the Galaxy have looked infinitely more dynamic than how they ended the season. Hopefully Bruce’s formation against Santos isn’t an indication that he is having second thoughts, as I will literally pull out my hair if I have to watch another season of Zardes in the midfield.
Robbie Keane is utter bae and may just go down as the best striker this league has ever seen. Like Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa, Keane creates a large number of his own shots, which is why he is able to consistently produce underlying shot totals which make his year to year xG output so stable. Keane was able to account for a whopping 0.76 xG+xA per 90 and an astounding 1.2 goals plus assists per 90, oftentimes single handedly carrying the Galaxy’s anemic offense on his back. While it’s possible the Galaxy front man overperformed a bit in 2015, his underlying numbers remain solid, and it would be foolish to bet against a healthy Keane scoring fewer than 15 goals in 2016.
As a forward, Giovani dos Santos created about 0.34 xA per 90, despite only creating about 2.9 shots per 90. He did this, however, with a mere 7.7% touch percentage, which suggests that the Mexican star could have the potential to put up some truly impressive chance creation numbers from midfield. Whether or not his xA will go up or down as the volume of his chance creation increases will entirely depend on the types of chances he is able to create. If Gio can consistently cut inside and deliver through balls, this Galaxy attack can be as dynamic as ever. If not, Galaxy fans are in for a long season as it is absolutely necessary that Gio steps into the role vacated by Landon Donovan as the team’s primary chance creator.
Dos Santos also had an impressive 0.37 xG per 90, although that should be expected to go down as he’s moved farther away from goal. Still, he was one of the top xG+xA per 90 performers in the league with 0.71. If Gio can manage to keep this total above 0.5 per 90 from his new midfield positon, the Galaxy should have a potent attack between Keane and Gio and be able to attack teams from multiple angles. This was ultimately the strength of the legendary 2014 LA Galaxy team which broke all kinds of offensive numbers, and I truly believe this combo has the potential to put up numbers somewhat close.
The LA Galaxy have the potential to be one of the best teams in the league this year, however age and lack of team familiarity may stand in their way. While many have pointed to their improved defense, the Galaxy backline was ultimately not to blame for the sins of 2015. The Galaxy in 2015 bombed players forward like a team confident in possession (ala 2014), however they did not possess the skill to hold onto the ball or create chances from midfield, causing constant breakdowns which exposed the Galaxy back line.
Whether Van Damme and Cole are upgrades to the Galaxy backline, then, is completely irrelevant to the greater picture. What’s most important for the Galaxy is to attempt to replicate the possession and shot creation spread of 2014 to enough of a degree that they will create more goals through this offense than their aggressive posture gives up. Whether this will happen is ultimately not something we can see in the numbers, however the success or failure of the Galaxy season will absolutely hinge on this delicate balancing act.