Does Landon Donovan's return from retirement help the LA Galaxy? Absolutely. They're a team that's struggled to create high-leverage scoring chances for most of the last two years, and nobody in league history has been as good as Donovan at producing those types of moments.
He had 19 assists in 2014 and led the league in expected assists:
What that means is basically "He created great chances and a lot of them." He functioned as a traditional No. 10 except he did so while lining up out wide, on the wing of what was then a 4-4-2 with a Y-shaped midfield, generating the type of game-changing danger that most teams can't replicate from that spot.
Since he retired the Galaxy haven't been able to replicate it either. In part that's because nobody – not even Giovani Dos Santos, who's played a ton of time on the wing, nor promising youngish players like Sebastian Lletget or Ema Boateng – sees the field like Donovan.
But mostly it's because LA have struggled to build from the back and through midfield. They hit a ton of long balls, and that robs the offense of any sort of rhythm or sustained pressure, and hence you get a run like the one they're currently on, during which they've scored just 18 goals in their last 16 regular season games. That's an incredibly low total for a team with so much attacking talent, even if much of said talent has been sidelined with injury or international duty.
Which brings us back to the Y midfield, a system in which the two central midfielders line up stacked through the middle instead of side-by-side, and the wingers are slightly more advanced. It's a variation on the classic 4-4-2 and one that LA shredded the league with two years ago, scoring 69 goals in 34 games. Unfortunately for LA, Juninho's not walking through that door, and Marcelo Sarvas is not walking through that door, and so the midfield balance remains in question even with Donovan's return.
However, it's worth noting that the Galaxy's best attacking form of the season came back in mid-spring, when they scored 16 goals over the course of five games, going 3-0-2 in that span. Here's their passing network graph from one of those wins, 5-2 over RSL:
That's made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of each player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes they traded back and forth.
And that's very close to the old "Y" formation. Put Donovan in there on the left hand side, push him up a little higher and make him more central, and you can see the parallels to the 2014 team. That will mean more time on the ball, and better chance creation for the sputtering attack.
There is one other thing to pay attention to here: Donovan provides good coverage out wide. Though there are obvious questions about his legs since he's been retired for 20 months, over the last dozen or so years of his career he was a smart and dedicated defender. So too is Lletget on the other side, as is Jeff Larentowicz in central midfield. Throw those three guys out there along with Steven Gerrard or Baggio Husidic and the Galaxy – who give up more shots than anybody in the league, and are suffering for it – are perhaps able to tighten things up a little bit and stop conceding late goals.
That doesn't answer all the questions, of course, and the biggest one remains: Dos Santos and Robbie Keane don't fit together up top, and neither can really play any spot other than second forward. I still don't know how Bruce Arena solves that one.
Perhaps with Donovan back in the fold, he no longer has to. "Just throw them out there and let them attack" might be a good enough solution when you have three guys who are that talented in the same lineup.
We may get a little taste of that starting on Sunday, when LA host Orlando City (7 pm ET; FS1 in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada). Keane is questionable with a knock and Donovan probably won't play more than 15 seconds, but the band's at least partially back together again. Last time that happened, it was must-watch television.
I'll also be watching: OCSC central defender Jose Aja arrived with barely a whisper, but he was excellent for the Purple Lions in Wednesday's 4-1 win at Montreal. They're 2-0-2 in his four appearances, and he looks like a foundational piece for a team that's struggled to defend since Day 1.
It's pretty obvious that even with Donovan in the fold, LA have virtually no chance of catching an FC Dallas team that's streaking away from the rest of the West (and has a social media team that knows it):
The one team that maybe kinda sorta has a chance of catching Dallas is the Colorado Rapids, who visit Frisco on Saturday night (9 pm ET; MLS LIVE). Colorado are eight points back but have two games in hand, so it's technically possible for it them to disrupt FCD's run for silver – especially given that Oscar Pareja will be tempted to play something less than his best XI with the US Open Cup final looming on Tuesday night.
Last time Pareja went with the kids in an effort to rest the starters for Open Cup duty, they got stomped 5-0 at Seattle. An early red card reduced Dallas to 10 men, Clint Dempsey went supernova and that was pretty much that.
Obviously this isn't a repeatable strategy but now is the time for the Rapids to take an attacking gamble or two if they have any hope of catching the league's best team.
I'll also be watching: Hopefully Paxton Pomykal? The US U-18 midfielder signed with FC Dallas via their academy this week and he good:
OK, he almost certainly won't play – I'm not even sure he'd be eligible to do so. But still, if you're looking for the week's other big player signing, there you have it.
I try to focus on the underlying aspects of why good teams are good, bad teams are bad, and everything that's in between. Player X scored a lot of goals, yes, but why did Player X score those goals? Was the defense asleep? Did a teammate have a career night setting him up? Was he just more clinical with his chances?
This sums up my approach to the game:
With that as prologue: All that underlying data means nothing if the final touch isn't right – the last pass, and the shot. You have to take all that underlying build up and convert it into real production, and that brings us to Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan. The New York Red Bulls' duo are on the verge of a couple of attacking landmarks, with BWP one goal away from the best three-year haul in league history, and Kljestan one assist away from becoming the first player to have 30 helpers over a two-year stretch since the assist rule was tightened back in 2003 (that's a mouthful, but it really is a pretty big deal).
So we've talked about RBNY's high press, and their 4-2-3-1, and how their fullbacks get up the field, and the attacking movement that defines the team. None of that, though, would matter at all if Wright-Phillips and Kljestan didn't win those individual moments in front of goal. You have to produce.
And that brings us to the team they'll be lining up across from on Sunday (1 pm ET; ESPN in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada), D.C. United. They dominated NYCFC last Thursday for much of the game, but squandered three near-perfect chances in front of net: two from Patrick Mullins and one from Lloyd Sam.
I'll continue to sing Mullins's praises because he's so good at finding those chances in the first place, and I believe he'll eventually to put them away with regularity, while Sam's work over the last several years speaks for itself. But moments like that – the chance to turn a 1-0 lead into 2-0 or 3-0 – are the moments that contenders dominate.
The last touch is still the most important touch.
I'll also be watching: With Alex Muyl and Mike Grella out I suspect that RBNY press will be less smothering, which could end up inviting the D.C. fullbacks forward. United are an order of magnitude more dangerous once Taylor Kemp and Sean Franklin get upfield.
One more thing:
Happy weekending, everybody.