For the first time in weeks, everything fell into place for the LA Galaxy on Saturday night.
The Gs welcomed their new showpiece signing Riqui Puig with a forceful 5-2 thumping of Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Dignity Health Sports Park – a performance head coach Greg Vanney believes is a much truer reflection of his vision for the squad than the brutal 1W-6L-0D slump that preceded this win.
“An emphasis for us tonight was controlling the midfield, controlling the ball, not putting ourselves in difficult situations, but also getting the ball moving a little bit quicker, defending as a unit, making sure we were connected as a group and moving together as a group,” explained Vanney postgame.
“A lot of things that we've done well in spurts during the season, but we did them well over larger stretches of the game tonight, which is the key. You can’t just do it for five here, five there. Today we put it together and we took our chances.”
Puig awaits debut
Arrayed primarily in a 4-3-3 shape with Mark Delgado and Gaston Brugman holding behind Victor Vazquez in central midfield, the Galaxy imposed their possession-oriented style on the ‘Caps early. A first-half brace from Samuel Grandsir and a Panenka penalty kick from Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, along with an ace strike from range by Vazquez, catapulted the hosts into the ascendancy as Puig – who is still awaiting the completion of his work visa paperwork – watched on happily.
The hope is that Puig, once fit and acclimated, can provide an even higher level of creative inspiration in attacking midfield than his elder countryman and fellow FC Barcelona product Vazquez.
“Of course everyone knows Riqui Puig very well. He’s one of the most talented players that Barcelona brought [up] the last couple of years. He's going to bring a lot of great things; he's a young player with a lot of hunger. He's intelligent, he's smart, he plays fast. He's going be great for all of us,” said Vazquez. “We need some players like that on the team, because the way we are playing soccer is the way that Riqui also likes, and then it's a good addition for sure. Hopefully next week he can get some minutes.”
While his team’s tendency towards costly turnovers and letdowns did allow the visitors to briefly creep back into the match later, Vanney admitted Vancouver’s tactics and shape played right into LA’s hands, as his speedy wingers Grandsir and Kevin Cabral feasted on the flanks.
“They play in a pretty strict 3-4-3, and so their wingbacks don't typically find the backline too much, which means their three-back center backs cover a lot of territory,” explained the veteran coach. “So if you can move them around and then you can hit some of those passes to your wingers and guys from better positions, then it becomes more difficult for them.
“We have to continue to focus on [defending] as a group,” Vanney noted later. “I think our qualities and our ideas on the attacking side are there and clear, but that's why it's so important that collectively everybody who’s on the field, regardless of position, needs to be involved in the defensive side of the game, and we need to make sure that we stay connected and that we support our backline, that we don't just have attacking guys that want to attack.”
As woeful as the past few weeks have been for LA, they have now climbed back into the Western Conference playoff places, albeit pending Sunday's Week 25 results, and only on tiebreakers in a crowded mid-table scrum. The next few games look pivotal: A massive, six-pointer home game vs. Seattle Sounders FC looms next Friday, followed by long back-to-back road trips to Eastern Conference sides New England Revolution and Toronto FC.
“You can see when we get casual, we concede goals so easily,” cautioned Vazquez. “But we have to start again on this way, aggressive, with confidence and trusting in each other.”
If the 22-year-old Puig, signed long-term from one of LaLiga's top clubs, settles in quickly and the Galaxy can quell their collective tendencies towards self-destructiveness, there’s reason for optimism by the South Bay.
“We've been through a tough stretch, and a lot of it came out of the [June] international window from my perspective,” said Vanney. “Our midfield has been a little bit decimated over this stretch, for varying reasons. And I think one of the keys for us is we get guys healthy, we get Riqui and we get our options in the midfield, which allows us to play a little bit more within our vision, our style of having the ball, and that worked out for us tonight.
“Now we have to get back to preparation for a tough game next week and find the solutions, play a very mature game against a really good Seattle team. And we’ve got to do it one at a time for 10 more games. That's kind of our approach right now.”