The Los Angeles Galaxy came into the 2012 MLS looking, at least on paper, like a team capable of putting together one of the best seasons in Major League Soccer history.
Less than a month into the new campaign, however, the only thing being written on paper in LA is “Defensive Help Wanted.” A shaky backline has doomed the Galaxy to a nightmare start to what was supposed to be a dream season.
The torn ACL suffered by star center back and reigning MLS Defender of the Year, Omar Gonzalez, always figured to hurt the Galaxy defense. The big defender’s absence has led to a total collapse of a backline that was the stingiest in MLS just a year ago.
The early results are staggering. After Saturday’s 3-1 loss to New England, the Galaxy are now 1-2 in MLS, while also having lost in stunning fashion to Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. That loss has been made even more shocking considering TFC has started the MLS season at 0-3.
And in that terrible start, the Galaxy has played four home games in all competitions, and have lost three times. That’s three more times than LA lost at the Home Depot Center in the entire previous year.
So what’s going on in Hollywood? You can start with the defense that has struggled badly to replace Gonzalez. Both veteran Andrew Boyens and rookie Tommy Meyer have looked shaky, but they aren’t alone in looking bad this season. The rest of the defense has played well below the level they enjoyed in 2011. Todd Dunivant was arguably the best fullback in MLS last year. Yet, this year he has looked slow and out of form. A.J. De La Garza, whose partnership with Gonzalez was impressive enough to earn him a US national team call-up this past winter, has looked lost without Gonzalez.
The backline doesn’t stand alone when it comes to blame for the Galaxy’s atrocious start. Goalkeeper Josh Saunders has not looked nearly as composed as he did last year, when his outstanding form earned him the starting job and earned former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts a one-way ticket out of town.
Then you have Edson Buddle and Juninho: two players who’s re-signing by LA stirred up the most talk about this Galaxy team being an all-time great. Neither has yet to come anywhere near the level expected. Buddle has a goal and an assist in three matches, but has been wasteful with chances and just hasn’t looked very sharp. Juninho may be enduring the most disappointing season of any of the team’s returning standouts. He has been caught ball-watching on a handful of key goals given up by LA this season and just hasn’t provided the tenacious presence in midfield the team sorely needs.
All that, coupled with a David Beckham who’s growing frustration by the day at his team’s funk, has led to a Galaxy team that now sits in last place in the West. Sure, there are still plenty of games left to play, and the Galaxy still have too much talent to expect things to stay this bad. Yet, the fact that LA came out so flat after having a week off to regroup and set things right has to be ringing some serious alarm bells in LA.
Something else to note is that in the rugged Western Conference, where teams like San Jose and Colorado are off to strong starts, while expected powers Real Salt Lake and Seattle are playing as well as expected. The Galaxy’s digging themselves a hole it might take months to recover from: not only in their quest for another Supporters Shield, but also for the all-important home-field advantage in the playoffs (assuming LA gets there).
Then again, as badly as the Galaxy are playing at home these days, maybe home-field advantage won’t mean much come playoff time. Right now, the Galaxy need to make sure they actually do make the playoffs, and that will mean sorting out some serious defensive problems, and getting some key veterans to wake up.
It will be up to Bruce Arena to sort things out, and his track record suggests he will. Gonzalez is expected to return in the early fall and should be back in time for the stretch run and playoffs. Arena knows full well that getting into the playoffs is what matters because once Gonzalez is back, the Galaxy will still be considered a serious title contender no matter how tough things get during the regular season.
The question now is whether LA will straighten things out and start playing like a playoff team. If they don’t, instead of talking about a team that could be one of the best in league history, we will be left talking about what would easily be the most disappointing team in MLS history.
Here is a look back at five key developments from MLS Week 4:
As much as the Galaxy’s struggles had to do with their loss to New England, the Revolution absolutely deserve credit for posting a second straight win against Western Conference opposition, and a vital victory on the west coast. Jay Heaps’ collection of journeymen built around a strong nucleus of Revs veterans, is playing good soccer and frustrating opposing attacks with some strong defense.
You can also look to some reclamation projects that have found a home in New England and are proving they still have plenty to offer. Clyde Simms came over from United and has been outstanding in the team’s recent victories, while Blake Brettschneider and Lee Nguyen have also contributed after being picked up off the waiver wire.
Major credit for the Revs recent surge goes to veterans like Shalrie Joseph, who remains one of the league’s best players. Goalkeeper Matt Reis is enjoying a bit of a renaissance after enduring some rough years with the Revs. Throw in A.J. Soares playing at an all-star level, and Kevin Alston once again looking like a US national team caliber player at right back, and you can see how the Revs have turned things around.
Does New England have the weapons to be a true playoff contender? Saer Sane is looking like the strong forward the club has lacked since Taylor Twellman hung up the boots, and we still have yet to see Colombian Jose Moreno in action. If Moreno is as good as advertised, and Sane keeps playing like he’s been playing, the Revs will suddenly have a competent forward line. Combine that with a tough defense, and the Revs are very much capable of being a playoff team in the wide-open Eastern Conference.
US Under-23 keepers on shaky ground
As if the pain of seeing the US Under-23 national team failure to qualify for the Olympics wasn’t bad enough for them, young American goalkeepers Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson have returned to their MLS clubs to find two fill-in goalkeepers playing extremely well.
In Chicago, young Italian Paolo Tornaghi has been outstanding in goal for the Fire, displaying good shot-stopping ability and command of the penalty area.
At United, Joe Willis has stepped in for Hamid and delivered some of the better goalkeeping performances of the young MLS season.
Does that mean Hamid and Johnson are ready to be benched? In Hamid’s case, an ankle injury will keep him sidelined a few more weeks, which means more time for Willis to stake his claim to the starting job. It might seem unreasonable to think D.C. head coach Ben Olsen wouldn’t re-insert Hamid into the United lineup when he’s healthy. But if Willis keeps putting up outstanding performances, Olsen will have to think about sticking with the hot hand.
As for Johnson, he is not only dealing with competition for his job, but also with the burden if disappointment for the soft goal he gave up that helped eliminate the United States from Olympic qualifying. It’s the kind of blunder that could seriously dent a young goalkeeper’s confidence. To his credit, Johnson has not been shy about accepting blame for that mistake, and he sounds like a player ready to rebound. Yet, if Tornaghi keeps playing well, Fire head coach Frank Klopas could find it difficult to remove Tornaghi from the lineup.
Rookies keep on shining
Nick DeLeon and Kelyn Rowe were two of the top midfielders in the NCAA less than six months ago, and both have wasted little time adapting to the rigors of life in MLS.
Both rookies were key figures in big victories over the weekend. DeLeon was outstanding for D.C. United in their 4-1 drubbing of FC Dallas, providing a goal and assist. Rowe scored his first MLS goal in the Revolution’s 3-1 victory against the LA Galaxy.
DeLeon has forced his way into a strong D.C. midfield after scoring in the team’s loss to Los Angeles two weeks ago, and may not come out after his display against Dallas. Rowe has become a mainstay in the Revs lineup and has helped the team’s resurgence after enjoying a strong pre-season with the club.
DeLeon and Rowe are just two of several rookies who have already established starting roles in MLS this season. Goalkeeper Ryan Meara has taken over as New York’s starter and Tony Cascio has been a real revelation for the Colorado Rapids. The Columbus Crew have also found a solid defensive midfield option in North Carolina product Kirk Urso. Fellow ACC alum, Casey Townsend, has also settled in as a starter for Chivas USA.
Henry’s heroics hiding some Red Bulls flaws
Thierry Henry is playing out of his mind for the New York Red Bulls these days, with his three-goal, one-assist effort against Montreal leading the Red Bulls to a 5-2 romp which earned him his second straight Player of the Week nod.
The team’s offensive outbursts (nine goals in two matches) have shown what an in-form Henry can do. But those heroic performances have also helped overshadow some flaws the Red Bulls have shown early in the season.
Start with the defense, which has looked incredibly shaky this season. Wilman Conde looks like the real deal, and a capable anchor of the back line, but newly-signed Markus Holgersson doesn’t look nearly as imposing or steady as Hans Backe insists he is. Holgersson lacks the ball skills he was touted as having, and his lateral quickness is glacial. Throw in Jan Gunnar Solli looking very vulnerable at right back and we are left to wonder what will happen when New York faces high-powered attacks like Seattle and Sporting Kansas City.
Then there is the Red Bulls midfield, where both Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards have been largely non-existent. Lindpere has been the team’s most consistent player the past two years, but he just doesn’t look right and may be carrying a knock. Richards is just enduring one of those invisible stretches that his career has been known for.
The Red Bulls have their bright spots. Kenny Cooper is playing extremely well, and Conde is playing at an all-star level. Rookie Ryan Meara has been very steady, though his game against Montreal was his worst to date.
Luckily for Hans Backe and the Red Bulls, Henry has put on his Superman cape and given New York a major boost to start the season. He won’t be able to keep that pace up though, so the Red Bulls are going to need several players to start playing better before the results start turning in a different direction.
This week’s Best in MLS
Player of the Week: Thierry Henry. Put together the best game of any player this season, thoroughly dominating Montreal.
Rookie of the Week: Nick DeLeon. The D.C. midfielder played like a veteran in helping United dismantle the Dallas defense.
Team of the Week: New England. Going cross-country and knocking off the Galaxy at home was the most stunning result of the week.
Comeback of the Week: Real Salt Lake. Down 2-1 in the 88th minute, RSL rallies with two late goals, capped by Kyle Beckerman’s stunning game winner.