National Writer: Charles Boehm

Two up top? LA Galaxy’s explosive Dejan Joveljić hands Greg Vanney a dilemma

All things being equal, serving as Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s backup with the LA Galaxy would not generally appear to offer a fast track to fame, fortune and substantial playing time.

Dejan Joveljic is certainly making the most of the role, though.

The young Serbian striker caught fire this week, scoring the Gs’ third goal in Wednesday’s ferocious US Open Cup 3-1 defeat of LAFC before upping the ante with a masterclass performance in their 4-1 thumping of Austin FC at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday.

Joveljic had a hand in all four tallies, bagging two goals and two jaw-droppingly impressive assists in 33 explosive minutes off the bench. In doing so, he led the way towards reversing the narrative around the Galaxy, who entered the week reeling from a three-game winless skid marked by two ugly losses at home to FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC – and delivered the club’s first comeback win on home turf since head coach Greg Vanney took over ahead of the 2021 season.

“Every time Dejan comes in off the bench, he's scored a goal, he's had a goal called back, he's had assists – he's made a difference,” said Vanney postgame. “He's brought energy, he's brought confidence. He's brought quality in the final actions. So his opportunities are coming – and in starts, he'll play if he can continue to do the same thing and do it for large stretches of time.

“He shows his quality in front of the goal, and also just some cleverness on the assists – both assists were quite clever, actually, his awareness on the field. But also in the locker room I also gave him a lot of credit for just the defensive work he put in when he came on the field; his off-the-ball running, just trying to harass the defenders, make it difficult on them, was outstanding. So this is the young man that we thought we were getting, who can score goals, and for us now it’s to keep finding opportunities for him to continue to grow as a player and grow within our team.”

Purchased for a reported fee of around $4 million last summer from Eintracht Frankfurt via MLS’s U22 Initiative, Joveljic arrived with obvious talent, and lofty expectations to match that hefty price tag. He’s had to bide his time, however, which can be no easy task for a bullish youngster, using his cameo appearances to build his case for a bigger role with an increasingly compelling urgency.

“I’m a hard-working player and when I'm on the field I want to use every chance. Now I got like 25, 30 minutes, I managed to score two goals and two assists,” said Joveljic.

“I'm very happy and very proud of my team. We showed great effort, great mentality and I'm sure that we deserved to win. Also Austin is a very good team with very good players, but today we were the better team.”

The 22-year-old seems to be pulling off the difficult task of crafting an understanding with Chicharito even as he pushes the Mexican icon to earn every minute on the pitch. The Galaxy trailed 1-0 when Joveljic entered the match in the 57th minute, and one of his first touches was an elegant layoff of a Julian Araujo cross into Hernandez’s path for the equalizer.

“Dejan is an amazing striker, he's doing amazing things, coming from the bench as well as starting in the [Open] Cup,” said Hernandez. “Congratulations to him, especially because he changed completely the game. He did two amazing assists apart from the two great goals that he did.”

All this begs the question: How much longer can Vanney afford to restrict Joveljic to a reserve role?

The coach clearly wants to bring the prized prospect along slowly and has in large part centered his Galaxy rebuild project around wingers, splashing out significant investment on French wide men Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir for his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape. But the proven scoring threat of Chicharito and Joveljic, combined with the budding chemistry they’ve flashed, may force LA to ponder a two-striker setup from the opening whistle, and soon.

“Yeah, I think it's possible,” admitted Vanney on Sunday. “For me, it's about a couple of things. It's them being able to defend together and then us as a team being able to defend together. It's about consistency when you have two forwards on the field, about consistency of scoring goals also. But I think the more opportunity they get, the more I see a connection between the two of them, which has been nice. I think it's something that we can certainly consider as we continue to move forward.”

It’s a tactical question that draws some parallels to his salad days at Toronto FC. Vanney generally liked a 3-5-2 to get the most out of his Jozy Altidore-Sebastian Giovinco strike partnership, though he switched to a 4-4-2 diamond at times, most memorably in the 2017 MLS Cup final that sealed the Reds’ unprecedented treble, to offer a different look that made the most of some subtle personnel tweaks.

Asked about his growing rapport with Joveljic, Chicharito preferred to emphasize the need for broader synchronization across the entire squad.

“About playing together, that's a question for Greg. I mean, Dejan and I have the same mindset, that as long as we are on the pitch, we're going to help the team and we're going to give everything and we're going to try to make things happen in the benefit of the team,” he said. “The chemistry needs to be not only about two or three players.”

With the June international break leaving almost three weeks until their next league match, Vanney and his staff will have some time to experiment with ways to maximize the impact of their eager young Serb, who is hungry to climb into the reckoning for his national team.

“You can see Dejan’s confidence is not lacking,” said Vanney with a flicker of a grin. “So that's exciting for us. But to have two guys who can put the ball in the back of the net, again, if they can coexist out there on both sides of the ball, then there's no reason why we can’t utilize that as something for our team. So there's certainly a case that's being made now that they've gotten some time together in some of this stretch.”