CARSON, Calif. -- Steven Gerrard will be a pivotal figure as the LA Galaxy this season look to right what went wrong last fall, and his new partnership with Nigel de Jong could provide the foundation for a fourth MLS Cup title run in six years.
The 35-year-old Englishman, who had some fine moments but never found his best footing in 16 games across three competitions last year with LA, figures to make a huge impact on the Galaxy attack, in great part because of what the Dutchman will furnish behind him.
The Galaxy's acquisition of de Jong, 31, following Juninho's December move to Club Tijuana, gives them, at least on paper, the most compelling central midfield combo perhaps in MLS annals, and his qualities -- what he's done at Ajax Amsterdam, Hamburger SV, Manchester City, AC Milan and with the Dutch national team -- appear to fit perfectly with the Liverpool icon's.
It's just going to take a little time.
“I think we're weeks away [from having the connections down pat],” Gerrard said Friday, as the Galaxy sharpened focus ahead of Sunday night's MLS opener against D.C. United at StubHub Center (10 pm ET, UniMás). “We've probably had 10 [training] sessions together, a couple of 90 minutes [in games]. With preseason, it doesn't matter how hard you push yourself in the gym or on the training ground, there's nothing like match tempo, MLS minutes, and it'll take three or four games before we peak.”
Gerrard, who had a pair of goals and three assists in 13 regular-season league games after arriving last July, is much more of an attacking midfielder this season as LA's midfield responsibilities have become more sharply defined. Juninho was, like Gerrard, more of a two-way central midfielder, as adroit attacking as in defense. De Jong is among the world's more celebrated defensive midfielders.
“Juninho's a fantastic player, but he's a playmaker,” Gerrard said. “He liked the ball at his feet, he likes to pass, he's got good vision. He's got different strengths to his game than Nigel. Nigel's your typical No, 4/6, where they sit in there, they're aggressive, they break up their play, and they give it to the players in the team that can do the damage going forward in the final third.
“I'm sure that's what Bruce [Arena, LA's head coach] has told Nigel -- that's what Bruce told me he's told Nigel -- and we're hoping that relationships works with me and Nigel, but we'll have to wait and see. But he's a great acquisition for the club. I've got full confidence in him.”
Gerrard and De Jong played together over 134 minutes during preseason, in a victory over San Jose and loss to Seattle, then went the distance in both legs of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal defeat to Santos Laguna. They're still learning to play together.
“I think it's like any tandem that plays in the center of midfield, knowing their responsibilities and having a feel for each other,” Arena said. “I think when Stevie's in there with Nigel, they have a pretty good feel. But it's going to take time. Nigel's only been here for [a little more than] three weeks. It takes a little bit of time.”
De Jong predicted when he arrived in Southern California that he and Gerrard were “going to be a dynamic duo.”
“I think we feed off each other,” he said during preseason. “I mean, his quality to to go forward, and I sit more to give protection to the defense, and I think we feed off quite well to each other, and I hope we can dominate this season with each other. It's starting to gel.”
De Jong is the first true holding midfielder the Galaxy have had in their starting lineup in years, and his pedigree suggests his impact could be the difference for LA.
“He checks every box, as far as his understanding and experience and leadership qualities, his tackling ability, his reading of the game,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “Time will tell in getting acclimated. That's the thing I think everyone kind of underestimates. It takes time, and no matter what level you come in -- David Beckham would tell you and Stevie Gerrard and Nigel the same -- it's going to take him some time.
“But I think when you look at it, he has the potential of being as good as there's been in the league in that role.”
That bodes well for Gerrard, who has looked far more comfortable in preseason than he did during four months with LA last year and says he's ready for this campaign.
“I had four, five weeks off with no football at all before I arrived last year, so this year I've got no excuses,” he said. “I've been training hard, pushing myself, a lot of gym work, a lot of field work, and I'm hoping with a few more 90s under my belt I can be 100 percent.”
De Jong's presence will help.
“I know that I've got someone behind me. I've got a safety net,” Gerrard said. “I think I've played some of my best attacking stuff during my career [at Liverpool] with a [Javier] Mascherano or a Didi Hamann in there, natural holding midfielders, and I see Nigel in that bracket as well.
“Fingers crossed, I can perform well this year, and Nigel's job is to help me do that.”