LA Galaxy banking on revamped backline for turnaround

2018 Preseason - Michael Ciani - LA Galaxy - Header in traffic

IRVINE, Calif.—Things look very different at the back for the LA Galaxy this year, a big plus after what went down last season. 

And there's confidence in camp that this year's team is going to better resemble the contenders of the Bruce Arena era than last season's bottom-feeding finish.

Sigi Schmid has presided over a reconstruction, and much of the work has been done at the defensive end after injuries and an alarming lack of depth aided foes in scoring 67 goals, but it's one of those works in progress, and nothing yet is certain.

The Galaxy got a terse reminder of that in Saturday's 4-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in a preseason game at a packed stadium in Orange County Great Park. The Quakes continually found space for Danny Hoesen and Chris Wondolowski -- and then Tommy Thompson later on -- as a weary LA defense was shredded too often and goalkeeper David Bingham, new from the Quakes, endured a most difficult afternoon.

Schmid, who started his second stint as head coach of his hometown club last July, wasn't pleased.

“I think that we were too soft and we gave away too much space, and that's can't happen,” he told media afterward. “[We saw] the old bugaboo from last year, where we give up one goal [and] we give up another goal right after that, and that has to be better.”

The Galaxy had weary legs after an intense four days in Santa Barbara, where it beat USL side Fresno FC on Thursday night, so that played into it. But the greater lessons must be digested. The team is in good stead physically, and things are clicking in attack, but “we have to be better defensively.”

LA's backliners agree, and they say they're more than up to the challenge. It's largely a new group from the No. 6 spot back to Bingham, and the chemistry is coming along. It's just not yet there.

“That's what some of today was,” said center back Daniel Steres, a two-year starter and one of six LA players registering their first full 90 minutes of the preseason. “We don't quite have it yet, and we still need to work on that a little bit, just knowing exactly where each player is going to be defensively [and] how we want to start the press together.”

The Galaxy likely will have just one or two returning starters among their defensive six: Ashley Cole at left back and possibly Steres, who appears to be battling French veteran Michael Ciani -- and possibly No. 2 overall draft pick Tomas Hilliard-Arce -- for the spot next to Norwegian defender Jorgen Skjelvik, who arrives after four-plus years with Rosenborg.

Perry Kitchen, back from Europe, is set for the holding slot in midfield, and Swiss-born Venezuelan defender Rolf Feltscher, whom Schmid calls “a lockdown defender,” is the No. 1 at right back. Fourth-year LA defender Dave Romney will back up Cole and provide depth in the middle, and Montenegrin-born Emrah Klimenta, who played seasons with the USL's Sacrament Republic, will back up Feltscher.

Cole is 37, but remains spry and, of course, has immense wisdom. He's likeliest to wear the captain's armband this season.

“I have confidence in these players,” he said. “They're fighters and they've been in the [game] for a long time. ... We definitely need to sharpen up and get our defensive movement as a team right before the [March 4 opener against Portland].”

Skjelvik, 26, is the key addition. He's the true real replacement for Jelle Van Damme, who was so dynamic in 2016 and something of a mess last season -- with three red cards in 18 games -- before returning to Belgium in August.

Skjelvik, too, is left-footed, and he's an elegant passer, but he's a steadier sort than Van Damme, a better reader of the game, not nearly so mercurial. He's been paired with Steres over 120 minutes -- he, too, went the full 90 against San Jose -- and with Ciani for 45 through four preseason outings.

“He's very good at playing the ball out of the back, which I think will help us find players in good pockets on the field that makes it easier for them to get forward,” Schmid said. “He has good pace. He's a guy we expect to start, but we also need to hear his voice and his organization.”

Skjelvik understands this, but the process takes time, he says.

“I wouldn't say [I'm the leader in the back],” he said. “I'm hoping to become the leader of the group. It's still early. We're still working on things, we're figuring out how we're going to do different things. It's wrong to try to become a leader [just now], but, eventually, that's my goal.”

Right now, he's one of the new guys still feeling his way into the group.

“It's about knowing your teammates,” Skjelvik said. “It's difficult to come in and start to lead people when you don't know how they like to have it and how they react to different situations. Once you get to know people and how they react to different situations, it's easier to lead people.”