OPTA Spotlight: Life without Gonzalez proves tough for LA

LA issues, Omar Gonzalez, Opta Spotlight

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What’s going on in LA?

At some point this season, we’ve all thought it. And, well, Bruce Arena has almost surely spent the last three months trying to find the right remedy to cure what ails the Galaxy.

Through three months of MLS play, LA find themselves in the Western Conference basement with a leaky backline, third to last in the league in points per game (.86) and tied for second in goals allowed (21). And it only gets worse from there (see chart).

Defensive record in 2011 and 2012
  Goals Conceded GC/game GC (in box) GC (outside box)
2011 30 (38 games) 0.79 26 4
2012 21 (13 games)

1.62

18 3

They’re 3-8-2 in MLS, having already accrued three more losses in 13 games than they did in 34 in 2011, and 3-10-3 overall with shocking exits in the CONCACAF Champions League to Toronto FC and the Carolina RailHawks in US Open Cup play, the first of which was defined by a decisive – and previously uncharacteristic – defeat at home.

This from a team that all but one MLS manager surveyed picked to collect a third straight Supporters’ Shield, a team that seemed primed to challenge for silverware on three fronts with the MLS Cup-winning roster intact and Edson Buddle back in the mix. And that was even after 2011 MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez was lost to a knee injury in his first training session on loan at FC Nürnberg.

So what are the statistical differences between LA’s Supporters’ Shield season a year ago and what has been a frustrating, and frankly shocking, 2012? And why might those discrepancies be occurring to this team at this time?

It’s actually quite simple, from a defensive perspective at least. It turns out losing Gonzalez was an even bigger blow than previously thought – an understatement if there ever was one considering the handwringing back in January – and the Galaxy simply haven’t been able to find a consistent partnership in central defense to pick up the slack.

LA center back pairings in 2012
Game Result Right Center Back Left Center Back
at Toronto (CCL) 2-2 (D) Boyens DeLaGarza
Real Salt Lake 2-3 (L) Meyer DeLaGarza
Toronto (CCL) 1-2 (L) Meyer DeLaGarza
D.C. United 3-1 (W) Boyens DeLaGarza
New England 1-3 (L) Boyens DeLaGarza
at Sporting KC 1-0 (L) Meyer DeLaGarza
Portland 3-1 (W) Meyer DeLaGarza
at Colorado 1-2 (W) DeLaGarza Lopes
FC Dallas 1-1 (D) DeLaGarza Lopes
at Seattle 2-0 (L) DeLaGarza Lopes
New York 0-1 (L) Meyer DeLaGarza
at Montreal 1-1 (D) Keat DeLaGarza
at Chivas 1-0 (L) DeLaGarza Lopes
San Jose 2-3 (L) DeLaGarza Gaul
at Houston 2-1 (L) DeLaGarza Gaul
Carolina (USOC) 1-2 (L) Leonardo Lopes

Apart from the gaping hole left by their MLS-best defender, the LA backline is essentially intact from a year ago. Todd Dunivant mans the left side, Sean Franklin the right and A.J. DeLaGarza patrols the line in one of the two central slots.

The glaring question mark each time they take the field is who will line up next to DeLaGarza? And, as a result of that decision, will DeLaGarza take the right or his preferred left channel?

That seems to change from game to game (see chart at right), with Andrew Boyens, Tommy Meyer and Dan Keat allowing DeLaGarza to stay on the left next to Todd Dunivant, while the presence of David Júnior Lopes or Bryan Gaul in the lineup forces him to the right side alongside Franklin.

That kind of lineup shuffling is an immediate red flag for a team who built much of their recent success on defense shape and organization. Not only that, but LA have played three different goalkeepers this season – Josh Saunders, Brian Perk and Bill Gaudette – leaving the side that thrived on consistency in 2011 to adjust to an altered lineup from one game to the next.

Predictably, it seems teams have pinpointed what should logically be the Galaxy defense’s weakest point: the space where Gonzalez would have been at right center back. If you look at the graphic representing each goal scored vs. LA this season (left) and in 2011 (right), you can see that all but a few in 2012 have come through the area that Gonzalez would normally occupy.

And maybe we should have seen this coming. After all, LA gave up almost a goal more per game without Gonzalez in 2011 (1.6, just .02 fewer than this year) than they did with him (0.67). He was the league leader in total clearances, blocks and interceptions, personally shielding the area most vulnerable to attack and allowing his teammates to play the roles that best suit their skills.

Without Gonzalez there to anchor the backline, it seems opponents are simply able to get the ball into more effective locations from which to score. Although the Galaxy essentially have allowed the same number of shots on target per game – 3.92 in 2012 compared to 3.84 in 2011 – those shots are resulting in goals at almost double the rate and, unlike a year ago, coming overwhelmingly from open play (see chart).

Opponent's scoring efficiency in 2011 and 2012
  Perentage of shots resulting in goals Rank Goals from open play Rank
2011 20.5% 1 18 1
2012 42.9%

19

16 18

The end result of all this has been losses – 10 in 16 games to be exact – and a season in which the challenges just keep piling up, starting with Gonzalez’s injury and compounded by inconsistent play from Buddle, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, Saunders' prolonged personal absence and the ongoing personnel parade through central defense.

Can LA turn it around? That’s yet to be decided – and it’s hard to count any Arena-led team out this early in the campaign – but the answer to what’s gone on in LA so far this season is really quite simple:

The Galaxy are missing their most valuable player, and the rest of the league isn’t wasting any time reaping the benefits.