The superstar Swede has been the center of the Galaxy since he signed with LA last month, and rightfully so. The 36-year-old is one of the most compelling characters in the history of sports, and, as he’s shown in his first three games in MLS, is still plenty capable of dominating on the field.
He’s the most discussed member of an attack that, once fully healthy, should be among the best in MLS. Though there are legitimate questions about how Ibrahimovic, fellow striker Ola Kamara, attacker Giovani dos Santos and winger Romain Alessandrini will gel once dos Santos returns from injury, the group is probably too talented for the Galaxy to be anything less than a goal-scoring juggernaut in the long-run.
There’s much less certainty about LA’s defense. The Galaxy have a new goalkeeper in David Bingham and two first-year MLS players starting on a backline that’s at times been shaky this season. Their attack will likely be one of the best in the league, but that may not mean much if LA’s defense struggles.
There probably aren’t reinforcements on the way, either. The Galaxy have said that they don’t have much room to make additions after they acquired Ibrahimovic and re-signed Kamara to a new deal. Barring a trade or transfer out, their backline, for better or worse, is most likely set for the year.
Which brings us to Jonathan dos Santos and Perry Kitchen. The defensive midfield duo won’t dominate any conversations about the Galaxy this year, but they do hold outsized importance in the club’s chances for a trophy.
With the backline experiencing early issues and the club’s cadre of high-priced attackers not exactly known for their defensive work, dos Santos and Kitchen will shoulder a huge amount of responsibility. If they form an effective partnership, they’ll mask potential problems on the back four and allow LA’s attackers to get forward with abandon. If they can’t, the Galaxy will have a hard time hitting their ceiling.
“They’re an important piece of it, for sure,” Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid said last Friday, one day before LA’s 1-0 win at the Chicago Fire. “The more they can hold the pressure away, the more it allows the other guys to attack and concentrate on that.”
Prior to the win at Chicago, dos Santos and Kitchen, who signed with LA in January, hadn’t gotten much run together. They’d only played two full games alongside each other in the midfield: LA’s season-opening 2-1 win against Portland and their 2-0 loss to Sporting KC on April 8. They also started next to each other in the Galaxy’s 2-1 loss at NYCFC on March 11, but an early injury to Giovani dos Santos pushed younger brother Jonathan into a role higher up the field.
Before last weekend, they were very much a work in progress. Schmid felt they weren’t connected enough in the loss to SKC, with Kitchen too often pulled wide to defend the flanks and dos Santos losing touch with his midfield partner when he ventured into the attack.
Schmid put together a more disciplined game plan against Chicago, calling for Kitchen to stay in more of a central role in front of center backs Jorgen Skjelvik and Daniel Steres and asking dos Santos to limit his forays forward.
The duo executed the plan well in incredibly windy conditions at Toyota Park. When the Galaxy had the wind at their back in the first half, dos Santos and Kitchen kept the Fire pinned deep in their own third, recovering loose balls and recycling them to Galaxy attackers. In the second, with the Fire buffeted by the stiff breeze, they sat in front of the LA backline, maintaining a tight shape and routinely blocking off passing lanes to force Chicago wide at every turn.
Their work paid off. According to the Opta chalkboard, the Fire attempted a grand total of one pass inside 30 yards and within the width of the penalty box against LA. The few chances Chicago generated from the run of play all came from the flanks.
“I thought it was good,” Schmid said after the match. “This is only their third game really together, and I thought the partnership was much better than it was last week. We wanted Perry to stay central more, which he did, he didn’t get caught defending on the flanks as much, and Jonathan also played from a deeper position at times. The coordination between the two of them I thought was much better.”
They’ll face a much tougher test this Saturday against Atlanta United (10:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info). The Five Stripes are much better than Chicago in the attack, and Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe and, if healthy, Hector Villalba will no doubt get the better of LA at least a time or two. But if dos Santos and Kitchen keep a solid shape and hold firm in the big moments, they’ll do more than just give LA a good shot to win – they might just give the rest of us a new talking point when we discuss the Galaxy, too.