Stejskal: How Dominic Kinnear revived the LA Galaxy's playoff hopes

Dominic Kinnear with LA Galaxy

Dominic Kinnear didn’t begin his stint as LA Galaxy interim head coach thinking he needed to make major changes. Things may have been bleak when the former assistant was elevated to manager after Sigi Schmid left the team on Sept. 10, but Kinnear knew the Galaxy had the talent to make a real run at the postseason. A minor change here, a new face there, and he thought LA might just sneak in.

Six weeks and a few tweaks later, and Kinnear has the Galaxy on the brink. A home win Sunday on Decision Day presented by AT&T against Houston (4:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), who are 2-10-4 in the second half, losers of three in a row and 1-10-5 on the road this year, and LA will pass idle Real Salt Lake to qualify for the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed.

“I think it’s just been guys have been playing well,” Kinnear told over the phone on Tuesday. “I don’t think really too much has changed around here.”

Except results, that is. Kinnear has the Galaxy on their best run of the season. LA bounced back from a 5-3 loss at Toronto FC in Kinnear’s first game in charge to go 3-0-1 in their last four. After conceding 11 times in their preceding two games, LA have given up just two goals in that stretch, easily their stingiest four-game run of the season.

A few changes, which have probably been a bit more major than Kinnear admitted, have led to LA’s improved form. The Galaxy spent most of the summer playing in a 3-5-2 formation. Kinnear switched out of that immediately, lining up in a 4-2-3-1 for his first match before moving to what he called a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 – most have described it as a 4-4-2 – for their last four contests. He also changed personnel. Center backs Jorgen Skjelvik and Michael Ciani have been dropped for Dave Romney and Daniel Steres. Defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen was also benched, with Jonathan dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget taking over and performing well at central midfield.

Romney and Steres have been definite upgrades, but, according to Kinnear, it’s dos Santos and Lletget who have made the biggest difference. They’ve both looked good over the last month, with dos Santos playing up to his Designated Player status and Lletget looking like himself for perhaps the first time since he went down with a major foot injury early in 2017. They’ve kept things simple for LA, who look more organized in their two banks of four than they have at just about any point this season.

“[The new shape] gets Jonathan a little bit more on the ball and more involved in building up from the back. Obviously, he’s a very good player – he’s very good in tight spaces, he’s a good passer of the ball, he rarely gets rattled,” said Kinnear. “I think him and Sebastian seem to have a good understanding of their passing and their movement, so that’s been helpful… Those two have been key for us and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve been playing well.”

Unsurprisingly, the positive results have the Galaxy in a good place heading into their regular season finale. Star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, never one to pull punches if he feels a coach or teammate isn’t performing up to par, praised Kinnear after the club won 3-1 at Minnesota last weekend for giving LA a firm foundation and “a lot of confidence.” Kinnear himself said spirits are high heading into the decisive match against Houston on Sunday.

Of course, positive vibes in the middle of the week don’t always lead to good results on the weekend. And without a win against the Dynamo, Kinnear’s stint leading LA won’t be remembered by many. It might not last much longer even with a victory. Sources have told that they don’t expect the former Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes manager to be a serious candidate for the permanent job, and Kinnear said he hasn’t had any conversations about potentially continuing as head coach in 2019 with Galaxy brass.

Not that his presumed long odds for the full-time job will keep the two-time MLS Cup champion manager from doing his best to get the Galaxy back to the postseason with a win on Sunday. Just don’t expect him to talk about it much before the fact.

“MLS playoffs, anything can happen,” he said. “But I’m not looking at the playoffs or what may be just yet. My main focus is Houston for Sunday. We know what we have to do and we’ll talk about Houston. We’re not talking about anything else until the final whistle blows.”