CARSON, Calif. — As the LA Galaxy look across town and see LAFC's rise to the top of the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield tables, they see a model not all that different from what they envision for themselves.
Behind an uncompromising and attacking style of play that emphasizes quick movement and precise combinations to create and exploit space and involve every player in the lineup, LAFC have earned 46 points through 20 games and scored 36 goals more than their opponents.
And for the Galaxy, who began Week 20 sitting third in the West, there are moments where everything falls into place and their level approaches that of their El Trafico rivals. But these moments are few and often far between, indicative of a group still figuring out exactly who they are.
“Our identity is we always want to be the ones attacking,” winger Emmanuel Boateng told MLSsoccer.com. “I know it hasn't looked like that the last few games. We've maybe sat back a little more than we want to, but our goal is to always attack, keep attacking them, and when we lose the ball, press them high and win it right back.”
That's not an inaccurate description of LAFC (14-2-4), who Friday night visit the Galaxy (11-8-1) in the crosstown rivals' first meeting of the year (10 pm ET | ESPN, TSN2), nor of California Clasico rival San Jose Earthquakes, who tore LA apart last Friday night. LAFC and the Quakes go about it in very different ways, and so do the Galaxy when things are working how they want.
The Galaxy's key, of course, is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a target striker like none other MLS has seen. When teammates are getting him the ball in the right spots, he's deadly and the Galaxy can look unbeatable. Too often the connections are strained.
“That's part of, maybe, a little bit of the problem,” center back Daniel Steres said. “We've been a little inconsistent this year. We've put together some good performances, our backline and our defense as a team is good, and we get a couple goals. And we've had performances where we just run flat, kind of like this last one [against San Jose], and maybe things just aren't going our way.
“It's getting on that more consistent page, but we've been good at using our weapons, using Ibra and these guys, so it's going to be finding that again.”
Head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto — a most creative attacking midfielder during his playing days — and his coaching staff have implemented a game plan that's all about going forward effectively and dynamically. After six months, it's still a work in progress.
“I don't care about the [formation], is it 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1,” Schelotto said. “I think the more important thing it to [create the requisite mindset for] the players, to play like a big team, a big club. Be offensive. Go forward, manage the ball. This is the style I want to put inside my players.”
Even with Ibrahimovic scoring 13 goals in 16 games, the Galaxy wouldn't necessarily say their tactical calling card is as simple as finding him.
“It's tough [to pinpoint our identity], we play so different,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “Obviously, when you have a big man up front, you have to use him. That's a big part of our attack. We try to get it as high as we can as quick as possible, and then we play from there.
“Obviously, we want to dominate and keep possession, but I think we're most creative when we're a little more [direct]. Of course, playing on the ground, but definitely going forward. I think that's how Guillermo wants us to play. That's our most effective way.”
After missing the playoffs the past two seasons, the Galaxy have spent most of the campaign sitting second in the West, a ways behind LAFC. Schelotto said he's been pleased with his team's performances in victories over Minnesota United, Philadelphia Union and the Houston Dynamo, and in the second half of the Fourth of July win over Toronto FC. Much work remains.
“We are making some change,” he said, “and then it's common the guys fail sometimes, [are] not very intense during the 90 minutes, but we are trying, and we will get there, for sure, in the future.”
How close are the Galaxy to the ideal Schelotto has in his head?
“Oh, we are far. We are far,” he said. “I always think [about being] the best, and the best is very far for us now, but we are going [toward that].”