From a standings perspective, El Trafico has basically never been the biggest game of the weekend. The Galaxy have been so poor for so long that their rivalry with LAFC has been much more about spectacle than about the teams being particularly close in the table.

That is, at least temporarily, different right now! When LAFC drive on down to Carson Saturday night (8 pm ET | FOX & FOX Deportes) they will face a Galaxy side one point and one spot above them in the standings. Neither team’s ultimate fate will be decided this weekend, but this is an actual six-pointer that looks like it’ll have at least some bearing on how the season plays out for both sides.

How the game itself plays out will obviously come down to a lot of things — will Chicharito get loose in the box? Can Diego Rossi shake off the rust? Will Carlos Vela play? all come to mind — but I don’t think anybody has more on their shoulders than Galaxy defensive midfielder Jona Dos Santos.

Jona missed most of 2020. So far in 2021 he’s mostly been very good, if not quite up to the should’ve-been-voted-Best XI season he had in 2019. And what he does best is what the Galaxy need most, in providing both a bit of steel and guile in how he applies it in central midfield.

Here are two clips, via Second Spectrum’s tactical cam, from last week’s thumping at Seattle. In the first, Jona recognizes Cristian Roldan checking to receive the ball, closes the passing angle and forces a pass into a tough area creating a turnover. In the second, you’ll see great recognition on a passing lane once again. This time he baits the pass a bit and then jumps it to intercept:

That is all essential d-mid stuff, and the Galaxy need more of it. Dos Santos can’t be the only one providing it. Against Seattle, he was.

The above is all also measurable with just events data. There are subtler plays Dos Santos makes with regularity, ones that don’t jump off the screen or show up in any boxscore or even advanced stats. These moments are examples of “pass prevention,” a concept various analysts have explored over the years and which John Muller wrote about in his wonderful newsletter last month. Here you go:

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Jona cuts the angle into Roldan, then moves slightly to also block the passing lane to Kelyn Rowe, which forces Seattle to switch the field. It was not a big moment in the game, but what if Jona locks & trails on Roldan’s movement (as he does on the second clip in the first video embedded above) and opens up a lane to slide that pass to Rowe? Then the Sounders are advancing 4-v-4 against a backpedaling Galaxy defense, and frankly, I’d have liked Seattle’s chances in that situation.

Defending space like this exerts some level of control over the pitch. It is, I would argue, the defensive midfielder’s primary function — beyond even winning tackles or distributing the ball. It is also, in kind of a weird way, a measure of what didn’t happen, a dive into the counterfactuals of how a game might’ve played out if certain crucial reads that nobody even noticed in real-time hadn't been made.

The key to sequencing the soccer genome is somewhere in data like this. Smarter people than I are working on it.

Irrespective of all that, the Galaxy need more of this every week. They definitely need more of it against an LAFC side that makes a living making the exact types of passes Jona denied in the above clip, constantly slipping midfielders between the lines. Last season LAFC hit 17.1 passes between the lines per 90, a number that’s increased to 20.3 so far in 2021. LAFC are also fourth in the league in passes into the box, behind only NYCFC, Nashville and Orlando, also known as “three teams whose numbers are inflated by virtue of having played vs. FC Cincinnati.”

What I’m saying is that Jona’s got his hands full. It’s a new El Trafico in a lot of ways, but at least that one thing has remained the same.

Second Spectrum numbers of the week

An assertion I’ve made a few times this year based largely on the eye test is that the 4-4-2 has become something of a niche formation used primarily — and we’re heading into the realm of “exclusively” — by teams that are more committed to making it a game of transition rather than possession.

The numbers back that up, though not by the margins I’d anticipated:

Leaguewide:

  • 2020: 47% of possessions had transitions, 25.3% successful
  • 2021: 49% of possessions had transitions, 26.3% successful

442 Teams:

  • 2020: 50.2% of possessions had transitions, 26.4% successful
  • 2021: 51.8% of possessions had transitions, 27.9% successful

Basically: 442 teams are getting out into transition more this season than teams that play out of other shapes. That was the same in 2020, but the increase in successful transitions is greater this year.

Since formations are fluid, this isn’t hard-and-fast. But in general, the principle is that when you have two forwards you’ve always got two attackers in good spots to get out and running when the ball turns over, and it’s generally easy for a third player (usually the No. 10 in a diamond 4-4-2; usually a wide midfield playmaker in a flat 4-4-2 or a box 4-4-2) to join them.

Young Player of the Week

Note: This isn’t the best young player of the week, just one that interests me.

All that stuff about pass prevention and reading of angles I wrote about in the Jona segment? It’s the hardest stuff for a d-mid to master and yet James Sands does it in his sleep. He is incredibly gifted at making the boring, very missable correct read and forcing opponents into progressively lower-percentage decisions.

What he’s still not good at is progressive passing — at least when he’s playing at defensive midfield. This past weekend he played in the middle of a three-man backline, and the kid hit about a million diagonals to spread the Union out (even before Philly dropped down to 10 men) in what eventually became a 2-0 NYCFC win.

His chalkboard of completed passes vs. the Union is absurd:

Sands distribution

Kid went 41-for-42, and a lot of those were meaningful. Yes, it was 75 minutes against 10 men, but it provides proof of concept Sands can actually hit those passes.

But when he plays in midfield — and to be clear, his defense is infinitely more valuable in central midfield than it is in the backline — he just… doesn’t. Even when he’s being invited to do so:

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He literally had a teammate gesturing at him to hit it, but backwards it went.

If Sands starts hitting that pass, one that is very similar to the pass he played 40 times last week, he jumps from being a “good but kind of unsung MLS d-mid” to “$20 million dollar No. 6 who’s putting legitimate pressure on Tyler Adams at that spot.”

He can do it. We’ve all seen it — Philly fans have seen it a lot. The question is, will he?

NYCFC go to Florida to play Orlando on Saturday (6 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). That’d be a great time for Sands to start.

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