When you watch the LA Galaxy reignite El Trafico on Saturday by hosting LAFC (8 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes), the first word you hear will probably be “Chicharito.” It might be the second and third words, too, if the broadcasters don't then say "Carlos Vela."
Whoever is in-studio may honestly just say “Chicharito” and then stare into the camera for 20 minutes as everyone nods approvingly. He’s among the biggest figures in MLS and he’ll once again have a national stage to show why.
But for every big story, there are several quieter stories humming in the background that help create all the noise. In this case, there has to be a guy making things happen for the guy making things happen. In this case, that’s Ethan Zubak.
Which is surprising. Zubak is a 23-year-old homegrown who just started grabbing playing time last season. He hasn’t even played 1,000 MLS minutes yet. However, there’s a pretty clear timeline here – and it starts when you go back to opening weekend.
The Galaxy are down 1-0 at Inter Miami CF. Zubak is subbed on as a supporting striker in the 58th minute. Four minutes later, Chicharito grabs his first goal on an assist from Zubak. Fifteen minutes after that, Chicharito grabs his second after the goalkeeper struggles to choose between catching a cross or reacting to a potential header from Zubak.
Zubak then starts in Week 2 against the New York Red Bulls. Chicharito grabs a hat trick. His first comes off a rebound on a Zubak shot created by Zubak recovering the ball and sprinting into the box. And in last weekend's 3-0 loss at the Seattle Sounders, Zubak didn't start (halftime substitute) and LA had their worst match of 2021 by quite some distance. Chicharito's streak of five goals through two games stops there.
“My role so far this season has been kind of ever-changing,” Zubak told MLSsoccer.com last week. “It honestly depends on what Greg has wanted so far. The previous game I played as a support striker to Chicha where I'm making the runs and behind I'm getting the ball at my feet and he's just really staying in front of goal and being in good spots to score goals.
“It's really versatile, because at the beginning of last game [vs. New York Red Bulls] I started on the left wing. I played anywhere from the left wing to the right wing throughout the game to the supporting forward. It's really something where I can't get too comfortable in one spot. I just have to be ready for where Greg wants to put me. And I've really enjoyed that role so far. It gives me a lot of freedom to try to utilize the abilities that I have.”
There you go. Zubak is a chess piece being utilized to devastating effect in real-time. Shifted and contorted for the betterment of the collective as the opponent reacts to each change. That’s the lofty part. But that quote didn’t quite finish its follow-through. “It gives me a lot of freedom to try to utilize the abilities that I have, especially running in behind,” Zubak said.
Sometimes soccer is complex. There are still so many things we don’t know, can’t categorize and won’t truly understand about the nature of what’s effective in the sport. Sometimes it just involves running more.
“The thing about Ethan is not so much about his positional play, it’s more about his willingness to run, and whether it's from a wide position or it's from a central position, he gives us that consistent willingness to run behind, to stretch the opposition,” Vanney said. “If you have center backs or fullbacks who are trying to be aggressive into the space in front of them, he will constantly put those guys in difficult situations.”
That’s the crux of the whole thing. As much as Chicharito’s resurgence comes down to Chicharito putting in the physical and mental work this offseason or the tactical improvements made to the team by Vanney, it also comes down to a guy being willing to run a little bit more than everyone else in a sport predicated on running.
“It basically forces the center backs and outside backs to make decisions,” Zubak said. “So if defenders see a guy on the ball when I'm coming forward and they see that I'm making a run, they have to choose one of those two things.
“They have to say, ‘Oh, I need to follow that run. Or I'm going to trust the ball's not going to get played and I could stay.’ But for the most part, one of the center backs is going to have to come and follow me on that run. So if I'm pulling one defender, it allows little gaps for either Chicha or a number 10 in a lot of space.”
It’s a bit reductive to boil it all down to that. It’s not that far off, but it’s not like Zubak has just now figured out that making runs in behind is a solid strategic maneuver. It’s the running coupled with skills and an enhanced understanding of his role within a system that’s setting Zubak and the Galaxy up for success.
“I think that with the new system and with the coach and with this team around him ... it’s allowed us to be pretty dynamic up front, and I think that the basis is definitely from Greg,” Zubak said. “He's provided a system that makes it clear what certain responsibilities based on our individual abilities are. From there it's very instinctual. We know how to find the right spots based on each other's movements, based on our touches.
“I think that's been something coming together over the last year, year and a half. It's something that's developed really well together and that will probably develop into better throughout the season when we get more opportunities to play together.”
As Zubak and Chicharito log more minutes, it’s entirely possible that El Tri’s all-time leading scorer eventually regress to the statistical mean. Your real-life goal tally can’t double up your expected goals tally forever. For now, though, the Galaxy are enjoying the ride – one that includes Zubak in an under-the-radar role.
“I've loved every second of it,” Zubak said. “I think that me and Chicha will get better together throughout the year if we get more opportunities to show that. I’m very excited about this role and forming that relationship.”