By Phil Luetchford (@luetchy10)
“Cozmo, do you take Giovani Dos Santos to be your lawfully wedded superstar, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until contract’s end do us part?”
“You may now high-five the superstar.”
The LA Galaxy’s 2017 season is married to Dos Santos’ performance.
There was uncertainty revolving around the fit of the new acquisitions at the beginning of last season. Was Nigel de Jong the answer to the Galaxy’s loss of Juninho, a player who could both pass and tackle? Would Jelle Van Damme and Ashley Cole be significant defensive upgrades? And most importantly, would Los Angeles be able to replicate the possession and shot creation abilities of the dynasty-era Galaxy squads?
Well, de Jong came and went in eight months. In his short stint with LA, he was best summed up as “intelligently ruthless.” His summer departure freed up a slot in central midfield for someone to step up. Steven Gerrard and Sebastian Lletget were the Galaxy’s most potent combination. Baggio Husidic and Jeff Larentowicz found ample playing time there in Gerrard’s absence, which wasn’t a positive.
Van Damme and Cole were indeed significant defensive upgrades. The Galaxy overpaid Dan Kennedy and actually played Brian Rowe, who finished eighth in our list of goalkeepers ranked by GA-xGA. Daniel Steres was promoted from Los Dos after being named their Defender of the Year in two straight seasons and got off to a flying start by scoring on a corner kick in his Galaxy debut. The Galaxy seriously outperformed their expected goals against, conceding only 38 goals when our model expected them to concede 50.
There were several kinks in the Galaxy system that were never fully worked out. With Stevie G frequently out of the lineup there was no clear chance creator in Zone 14. Gio performed better with Robbie Keane out of the lineup, as the two forwards liked to operate in the same space and make the same runs. Neither excelled in hold-up play or could lead the line, which became especially evident when Gyasi Zardes was lost to a broken foot at the end of August.
A third place finish was quite high considering that the Galaxy didn’t hit the heights that they hoped to achieve. The Galaxy went out of the playoffs in Commerce City as Dos Santos blasted his penalty over the bar, and Cole and Larentowicz had theirs saved by Howard.
Out with the old and in with the new. Goodbye Robbie Keane. The reins are being handed to Gio. Have a happy retirement, Steven Gerrard. Romain Alessandrini, a DP who is nine years younger, will be the biggest threat out of the midfield.
Wait a minute, what is Jermaine Jones doing here? Jones continued his westward trek this offseason, finally reaching his desired destination of Los Angeles. It seems to be a marriage of convenience, brought about because Jones wants to be there more than anything. As a TAM signing, Jones is actually a better fit in Los Angeles than might be believed, as he is still a top two-way passing and tackling midfielder even at 36. He will bring veteran qualities to a team getting much younger elsewhere in the front six.
Alessandrini brings Ligue 1 pedigree into the starting lineup. He has 26 goals and 19 assists in 108 appearances in the French first division and the Europa League. He might get off to a slow start in MLS, however, because he has arrived in LA less than two weeks before the start of the season and has only played in one friendly.
Joao Pedro is a midfield destroyer. There are about two dozen professional soccer players that have “Joao Pedro” in their name, so there was some initial confusion from Galaxy fans as to which one they were actually getting. The Joao Pedro they signed is 23 and made 17 appearances in central midfield for Vitoria de Guimaraes in the Portuguese first division last season.
The hiring of Los Dos coach Curt Onalfo signals a shift in philosophy for the Galaxy. The new mantra of MLS is “play your kids,” an area in which Bruce Arena was clearly deficient. The LA Galaxy academy is capable of producing talented players, as is evident with Zardes. But for others like Jose Villareal, playing time was hard to come by under a coach that preferred the veteran player in every scenario.
Onalfo will deploy the Galaxy in a 4-1-3-1-1. Gio is the focal point of the offense as a free-floating second striker. With Cole and Robbie Rogers, Onalfo has two versatile fullbacks that contribute at both ends of the field. An ankle injury will keep Rogers out at the beginning of the season, so Rafael Garcia has been moved out of the midfield to fill-in at fullback.
The backline is short on depth. Actually, most positions are. But that’s part of the thrill of playing your kids. Positions without a veteran backup give room for a young player to grow. Where there’s a crack in the concrete, flowers can bloom.
Joao Pedro holds down the midfield while Jermaine Jones can go do Jermaine Jones things. Husidic is available to rotate in the middle as well. This frees Lletget to move back to the wing opposite new DP Alessandrini. It’s possible that Emmanuel Boateng scores against a team other than Real Salt Lake this year. Hopefully Onalfo gives homegrowns Villareal and Raul Mendiola ample playing time as well.
Gyasi Zardes recovered from his broken foot but then underwent knee surgery after an injury in January camp with the USMNT. With Gyasi not quite ready to start the season, Jack McBean will see if he can replicate his outstanding USL numbers at striker. Bradford Jamieson IV has seen a lot more time with Los Dos than with the first team, but that could turn around under the coach that nurtured him in the USL.
Ultimately, the fortunes of the Galaxy will rise and fall with the output of Giovani Dos Santos. Gio vastly outperformed xG last year, scoring 14 goals on a projected 8.66. He also has a low touch percentage at only 6.3%. If Gio is not on the ball, and his goal scoring regresses to the mean, the Galaxy will have a rough year. His skillset can be difficult to fully grasp, as he is not a target striker and not an attacking midfielder. Add the Galaxy to the list of teams that do not have a traditional #10 who sits in Zone 14 and creates chances.
The LA Galaxy are still a playoff team, right? They haven’t missed the playoffs since 2008. It’s hard to envision this team finishing below the red line.
The most obvious way for the season to be derailed is the loss of Dos Santos. The team is reliant on Gio as its main source of both goals and assists, so a season-ending injury would convert the season from trophy-seeking to youth-building.
The defense looks like a top defense in the league, although the outperformance of expected goals last season could indicate trouble. Was it due to luck or Arena’s magic? Or is there a Van Damme X-factor that the formula misses? If any starters on the backline are lost for a significant amount of time, there are no clear MLS-level replacements.
What if Jermaine Jones cannot last the entire season? Hopefully Onalfo has identified homegrown players who are ready to step up by that point. The success of the LA Galaxy for years to come could be defined by the growth of the homegrown players this year.
The Galaxy can be expected to make the playoffs. I project the LA Galaxy to finish between third and fifth place in the West. They will not be a top two team unless Gio goes off and gets assistance from Zardes, Lletget, and Alessandrini. Only if Gio misses significant time will the Galaxy fail to reach the playoffs