2014 LA Galaxy Preview: Putting all the pieces back into place | Armchair Analyst
World Cup Hangover: This worry can apply to the CONCACAF Champions League for the whole team, but the World Cup could take a special toll on Omar Gonzalez and Landon Donovan. How those two guys deal with the emotional ups and downs of whatever happens in Brazil will tell a lot about what to expect down the stretch from this group.
New-look Attack: Smart teams like Portland and RSL were able to bottle up the lanes that Donovan and running-mate Robbie Keane seemed to exploit at will against other clubs. The strategy was straight forward: Don't play the man, play the combination. To answer that, Bruce Arena brought in a pair of target forwards who will force zonal defenses to break from time to time – and give Donovan and Keane those lanes back.
The Third Man: Ok, so you have Donovan and Keane bottled up. That means someone else is going to hurt you, right? In 2013, the answer for LA was "wrong." None of the kids could become a consistent threat, and that was pretty much that. So now there's young Brazilian Samuel and old Canadian Rob Friend – the aforementioned target forward duo – as well as veteran Swedish international Stefan Ishizaki, a pure wide player. If one of those guys can get the job done, or maybe second-year man Gyasi Zardes, LA becomes exponentially harder to gameplan for.
Star Attraction: Robbie Keane
I actually still think Donovan is the best player in the league, but Keane is the attacking fulcrum for LA and, thus, the star attraction. It's not so much that LA goes as he goes, it's that they go where he goes.
Keane is a ball-dominant second forward in the classic English mold, which means he loves to drop off the front line and try to orchestrate various attacking forays from the empty space in between the central midfield and central defense. It's wildly effective when the rest of the team around him moves the ball quickly, and then moves themselves quickly to pull defenders out of Robbie's grill.
How effective is "wildly effective?" The Galaxy completed 400 more passes in the final third than the second-place team, RSL. They were second in completion rate in that part of the field, 0.04 percent behind RSL. And they created 342 chances from open play, 33 more than the second-place team.
Keane was the centerpiece of a well-oiled attacking machine that only broke down once the goal was at their mercy. That was especially true in the playoffs as LA crashed out for the first time since 2010.
The good news for Galaxy fans is that, for the first time in forever, Keane got a few months off and minor surgery to clear up bothersome Achilles' problems. That's right, folks – Keane was fatigued and gimpy to the tune of 16 goals and 11 assists in 22 starts.
It will be a shock if he's not one of the MVP favorites from MatchDay 1 this season, all the way to the very end.
Probable Formation: 4-4-2
One of the two big guys up top is going to have to change the way this team plays when faced with a physical, aggressive defense that's determined to stop Keane and Donovan. It will be something of a platoon to start with, to be sure. And Arena has made it very, very difficult to figure whether Friend or Samuel is higher on the depth chart as they prep for Club Tijuana in the CCL. But one of them's going to be there.
Will they be good? Probably. Friend is long in the tooth, but a veteran of multiple European leagues, including the Bundesliga where he was a teammate of Michael Bradley (you've probably heard of him) at Borussia Moenchengladbach. He'll do the same thing for the Galaxy he did there: Occupy the central defenders, win everything in the air, destroy on set pieces, and make simple, effective passes. He'll probably grab a few goals, too.
Samuel's more of a wild card, and not as big – 6-foot-1 compared to Friend's 6-foot-5. Plus he wears LA's cursed No. 9. But he's got a nice pedigree, having come up through Fluminense's youth system, and more than 60 games of experience the the Rio-based club.
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What He Said
“You need to keep pushing yourself forward individually. I think as a team we're going to gel, and I think the more opportunities we have to get on the field with both [Friend] and Samuel, that will be sort of the final piece that comes.”
Fantasy Pick: Robbie Keane ($11.0m/ selected by 17.9 percent of teams) – Considered by many as the best player in MLS, Keane has a combined 38 goals and 18 assists the past two fantasy seasons. He had surgery on both of his Achilles' in the offseason, but he's responded remarkably well and is in fine form to start the season. LA have provided him with a few new weapons in the midfield and forward, but Keane doesn't need much help. He can pass and shoot with the best of them and that is why he has to be on your radar in 2014.
Players to watch: Landon Donovan, Gyasi Zardes, Stefan Ishizaki
The best-case scenario for LA is that they stay healthy, they don't suffer any emotional lulls after the CCL (whatever the outcome) and World Cup (whatever the outcome) and basically stomp a mudhole into the rest of the league. This is the most talented roster in MLS, and should be expected to show as much.
Now, you're probably looking at last year's standings and saying "how could they be the most talented – they were six points off the Supporters' Shield pace and four points off of Portland's pace in the West!" And hey, the Red Bulls and the Timbers are both real good. There's a very good chance they'll out-perform LA this year as well, and the same goes for a few other teams.
But ... remember Carlo Cudicini? Galaxy fans do, because his early-season follies cost them anywhere from seven to 10 points, and – yup – that would have been enough for them to win their third Shield in four years. They bascially played the first part of the season with a handicap, and still found a way back into the fight.
There won't be a handicap this year, even with Jaime Penedo nursing a couple of injuries this preseason.
There also won't be the Achilles' heel that Portland exploited in the regular season and RSL took care of in the playoffs, thanks to the presence of Friend and Samuel. I also continue to be a bigger fan of Donovan attacking from wide spots in midfield than as the forward/playmaker hybrid he played as last season. There's more space to exploit when starting from wide in the modern game, which is how Arena will use his No. 10 in 2014.
The pieces seem to be in place for LA to return to what they see as their rightful spot at the top of the standings. It's up to everyone else to disabuse them.