There were two defining moments of the night for LA Galaxy's 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake to open up the Western Conference Semifinals.
The first came when Jason Kreis put pen to paper with his starting lineup – an ultra-conservative 4-2-3-1 designed to deny Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan space to work in between the lines, an overt admission that the RSL boss was hoping to go back to Utah with, at most, a one-goal decision in either direction.
The second came when Kreis returned to his roots, bringing on Robbie Findley and Sebastian Velasquez and switching back to a midfield diamond.
Let's start with why the 4-2-3-1 didn't really work:
1. Zardes becomes more than just a winger
The nightmare for most coaches when playing the Galaxy is for Keane and Donovan to get into space, at pace against a backpedaling defense. The de facto way to stop this is to drop the line deep – but if you do that, you open up space between the lines of defense and central midfield, allowing them pockets in the attacking third to exploit and weave chances out of possession rather than transition.
RSL used the 4-2-3-1 with Kyle Beckerman and Yordany Alvarez protecting that space, and at the same time denying either of LA's central midfielders (the quiet and sloppy duo of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho) the chance to dictate the game.
So the Galaxy shifted a portion of the playmaking duties to Gyasi Zardes:
That sucked Tony Beltran up the field into a series of 1-v-1 confrontations with Zardes and, while Beltran held his own, the knock-on was that Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler would end up being in a lot of foot-races and playing a lot of emergency defense, trying to cover the space behind Beltran (and, to a lesser extent, behind Chris Wingert on the other side of the field).
RSL scrambled very well, but were lucky not to be down 2-0 or 3-0 by the 65th minute.
2. The diamond midfield changes LA's shape
The Galaxy have handed responsibility for the space between the lines to Omar Gonzalez, who has become extremely comfortable stepping into the play and has really developed into a top-flight reader of the game.
These are Gonzalez's interventions in the first 65 minutes:
Once Findley and Velasquez came on, the game opened up. Since LA were no longer out-manned in midfield, stepping high was no longer as pragmatic a decision – especially since Findley was determined to get in behind and cause LA some problems.
So for the last 25 minutes, Omar's interventions looked like this:
Gonzalez was equally efficient in his back-foot defending as he was in his front-foot defending. His responsibility became dealing with the forwards rather than dealing with the passing lanes. It's something the Galaxy defense is well-drilled in.
The game certainly became much more aesthetically pleasing, and RSL came much closer to getting a goal, so it was probably a good move from Kreis. But there's no question that the Galaxy counter was on quite often over the game's final quarter.
With everything, there is going to be risk for both teams.
3. Galaxy cut the field in half, and RSL oblige
This was part by defensive design, as Bruce Arena's teams have always made containing the opponent to one side of the field a primary concern. You'll notice that their pressure from Keane and Donovan isn't necessarily designed to cause a turnover at the point of contact, but instead to force you into a pass you don't want to make. That's where Juninho and Sarvas, both of whom are true ballhawks, come in.
RSL allowed themselves to be forced into that lopsided approach, favoring the left side more than 2-to-1 over the right side:
It's not unusual to see RSL favor the left side, since that's where Javier Morales is most comfortable operating. And they don't need to find symmetry for the return date on Thursday night – there's no inherent advantage to being a symmetrical team.
But they have to find some balance, and make LA left back Todd Dunivant stay deeper than he was on Sunday. Dealing with Keane, Zardes and Donovan overloads all in the same channel is more than enough – there needs to be a threat in the other direction, or RSL will once again find themselves in the midst of yet another disappointing playoff exit.
One last thing: Have some swerve!
It's not quite "Djimi Traore vs. Tigres" levels, but damn is that a beauty of a strike.