Last August, as the LA Galaxy were smacking around the entire league while integrating Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard, quite a few of us in the media – myself included – wondered if anyone would even come close to stopping them.
There were plenty of reasons to love LA. They started the month by winning at Colorado, against Seattle, at Dallas and against NYCFC by a combined margin of 13-4 to move into first-place in MLS.
Their big names were producing, and they looked like a legit juggernaut. Dos Santos debuted with a goal and an assist in the win against Seattle and finished the stretch with two goals and three helpers; Gerrard had a couple of assists; Gyasi Zardes, in the midst of an otherwise down statistical year, had two goals and an assist; Robbie Keane was the best of them all, scoring six and turning provider three times in the four-game run.
Then, mysteriously, they got worse. A lot worse. The team that destroyed all comers during their first month with Gio and Gerrard went 1-4-2 in their final seven regular-season contests, then lost in the playoffs' Knockout Round at Seattle. That match was a comedy of errors, with massive mistakes, looming departures and a serious lack of chemistry between dos Santos and Keane prompting this very website to declare an end to the Galaxy dynasty.
The point? It’s always ridiculous to try to look too far ahead in MLS. It was last August, and it certainly is in late April.
But … the Galaxy look simply awesome right now.
LA have turned in two of the best performances of the MLS season in their last two matches, dismantling the Dynamo 4-1 in Houston on April 15 and wrecking previously unbeaten RSL 5-2 at StubHub Center on Saturday.
Perhaps most importantly, dos Santos – who came out at halftime of the Galaxy’s MLS opener and missed their next three games due to a leg injury – has been superb. He was the star in Houston, notching two goals and an assist and earning MLS Player of the Week honors for his performance against the Dynamo. He didn’t quite outshine Emmanuel Boateng on Saturday, but he still showed out, drawing a penalty, hitting the post, notching an assist and – consider this your trigger warning, Tim Howard – outrageously chipping Nick Rimando for his third goal of the year.
One of the bigger reasons for dos Santos’ return to form has been his move to the midfield. Bruce Arena played dos Santos either out wide or up top with Keane (who has missed LA’s last four matches due to injury) for much of last season, then played the two together at forward in LA’s disappointing CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal loss this year.
A portion of dos Santos’ offensive production last year came when he was out wide, but playing him there this year wouldn’t really fit the Galaxy, who are much deeper on the wing than at attacking mid.
While playing dos Santos out wide wouldn't jibe with the rest of the Galaxy’s roster, playing him up top with Keane just didn’t really work in 2015, notwithstanding that sublime stretch in August. In the Galaxy’s 4-4-2, Gerrard pushed up in central midfield, meaning dos Santos couldn't really drop into the midfield when he played up top. In a vacuum, that’s not a problem. With Keane on board, it became an issue. He and dos Santos often occupied the same space, leading to some out-of-sync play that culminated in the Knockout Round loss at the Sounders, when dos Santos completed just two passes – both on kickoffs – to Keane.
Arena has used dos Santos in the No. 10 role since the Mexican international returned from injury on April 9 against Portland, and the move has paid off. Zardes has been playing as the lone striker in Keane’s absence, and he and dos Santos have worked well together, as have dos Santos and Gerrard, who is now sitting a bit deeper.
Of course, it’ll be a bit different once Keane makes his way back onto the field in the next couple of weeks. He and Dos Santos will have some figuring out to do, but, as long as Arena keeps dos Santos at the No. 10 and plays Keane as the striker in a 4-2-3-1, I don’t think the Galaxy will have too much to worry about.
The positional changes should mitigate some of the spacing and chemistry issues Keane and dos Santos had last year. And the Galaxy’s increased midfield depth – once they’re healthy, two of Zardes, Boateng, Sebastian Lletget and Mike Magee will man the flanks, with Nigel de Jong joining Gerrard in sitting behind them in central midfield – should provide plenty of additional attacking firepower and defensive balance.
Arena noted on Saturday that media members tend to “get too nutty” about results at the beginning of the season. He’s right, of course. We’re still in the very early stages of the year, and teams that look like contenders now might not be in the picture by the time Labor Day rolls around.
The Galaxy won’t be one of those teams. They’re already good, and they should only get better as Keane gets healthy and offseason acquisitions de Jong, Jelle Van Damme and Ashley Cole continue to work themselves into the group.
And if dos Santos can keep playing at this high level? Well, at the risk of looking too far ahead, that might just make LA the force they were last August.