National Writer: Charles Boehm

LA Galaxy reinforce project with KC comeback: "They believe in each other"


It’s so over.

We’re so back.

It felt like the LA Galaxy weathered the lifespan of a viral meme in a matter of minutes at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday night.

Utterly dominated for the game’s first hour, the Galaxy pulled off a stunning – and sudden – comeback in Kansas City to rally from 2-0 down to 3-2 winners over Sporting KC, their first win there in five years. It extends their unbeaten start to the 2024 season (2W-0L-3D), pushes them up to sixth in the overall MLS table based on points per game (1.8 PPG), and, incredibly, is LA head coach Greg Vanney’s first-ever victory over longtime SKC boss Peter Vermes.

“They believe in it. They believe in each other,” said Vanney after the dramatic turnaround, achieved via three strikes in just eight fleeting second-half minutes. “When we can find the right balance in our game, then we are very dangerous. Tonight, for a long stretch, we just didn't find the right balance in the game, and we can also be very vulnerable if we don't. So I felt like we found it again towards the end.”

Flying start

The numbers love the Gs in the early stages of 2024: They rank second in MLS in goals scored with 12, behind Inter Miami’s 13, but with the Herons having played one more game, LA boast the league’s top goals-per-game rate at 2.4. They’ve also posted the second-best expected goals total with 12.04, just behind D.C. United's 12.77, and have been one of the cleanest teams in possession terms, ranking third in MLS with a passing completion rate of 87.5%, hard on the heels of No. 1 Columbus Crew (88.3%) and No. 2 Atlanta United (87.8%). And striker Dejan Joveljic sits atop the Golden Boot presented by Audi race in a tie with the New York Red BullsLewis Morgan on five goals each.

For Joveljic, there’s something deeper, more intangible happening. The Serb noted what didn't happen when he equalized in the 75th minute: He was not mobbed by his teammates in the usual fashion, and took heart, not offense, from that fact.

“Great mentality,” Joveljic told reporters postgame. “I'm not sure if you recognized that when I scored the goal, only one guy was celebrating with me, I think. Another nine or eight guys were not happy, because it's just 2-2. So that’s a big difference.”

“I cannot tell you specifically what is that, but it's some different energy this year," he added. "I mean, this is a great example.”

Joveljic-Puig connection

It all felt so different in the first half, as the home side’s possession and counter-pressing kept LA on their heels, capped by two goals leaked via sloppy set-piece defending. Playmaker Riqui Puig used the Spanish term “empañado” – scared, unsteady – to describe his team’s start, which felt very much like the bad old days of recent years past.

“We’ve got to defend set pieces better,’ said Vanney. “That's been five, I think, we've given up now in the course of the season, which is too many. So we've got to reassess whether we're doing the right things with the group and what needs to change.”

That xG number suggests the Galaxy are not fluking their way to this strong start, and on this occasion, it was matched by the eye test. For example, how Joveljic’s steadily-developing connection with Puig showed itself with a well-taken pass and finish chalked off by an offside call just moments before they linked up successfully for the leveler.

“He's doing a good job of showing up at the right places at the right times,” said Vanney of Joveljic. “We said this for a long time: that our forwards are going to get chances when we attack in the right ways, and we're able to move center backs out of the face of the goal, when we're able to get our wingers behind the backline, he's going to be the beneficiary of that.

“Today he made a nice little cut in behind the center back – actually I think it happened twice in a row. The first one he got called offside and then it was the same exact play where he actually was onside and buried it. So I think again, his reads and his tendencies on when Riqui gets the ball and in some of those positions, what movements make sense. At times, I've talked to him about not running in straight lines, but coming from angles, because it shows Riqui where he wants the ball. And so these little things are happening for him.”

Joveljic gave Puig all the credit for his latest tally.

“I mean, when the ball is perfect, it's easy to score,” he said.

Right on the Mark

Imperious for so much of the night, perhaps already contemplating what would have been the continuation of their unbeaten start, KC found themselves reeling at the sudden turnabout. LA showed a winner’s ruthlessness to take advantage via Mark Delgado’s back-post tap-in of a tantalizing cross/shot through the danger area by new winger Gabriel Pec, highlighting Delgado’s scintillating current form in all aspects of midfield play.

Delgado and Vanney have worked together for more than a decade, dating back to the player’s early days as a teenage homegrown at Chivas USA and continuing through a fruitful chapter at Toronto FC. Now Delgado is functioning as something like an on-field avatar of his coach’s ideas, aided – like everyone else in a Gs kit – by the pace and directness of new wingers Pec and Joseph Paintsil spreading the field and making enterprising runs.

“Mark, he just understands so well what we're trying to do. And then he has Joseph flying around the outsides, which sets up a lot of opportunities for him to slip passes through and to do things which is how he's been achieving great assists,” said Vanney of Delgado. “Slipping Joe through, finding other runners, he's just playing in his pockets, in his space. And he understands systematically what we're trying to do so well that he is the epitome of what it looks like for us. When the system is flowing, Mark’s going to be on, always. That's just a fact.

“The other thing that Mark does is he transitions to defense, he covers ground, he works and he plays at a high intensity for 90 minutes, like nobody else. That constantly makes him in the middle of the game, in the middle of the action, because he is right there in the game, whether it's on the defensive side or the attacking side. He's omnipresent in whatever is happening.”

LA can now look ahead to a meeting with their perennial Western Conference antagonists Seattle Sounders FC next Saturday (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) before visiting their crosstown rivals LAFC on April 6 for the year's first edition of El Tráfico.