CARSON, Calif. – Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores goals in bunches and Cristian Pavon has proven a savvy creator since arriving in August, and they're the two big reasons the LA Galaxy have a real shot at an unprecedented sixth MLS Cup championship.
They won't be enough if LA can't shore up their defensive woes.
The Galaxy head into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, and Sunday's first-round road assignment against Minnesota United FC (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TVSN4, TVAS2 in Canada), with the worst defensive record among the contenders. They've conceded 59 goals – only the Montreal Impact, Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City and FC Cincinnati, none of them still playing, have surrendered more – but it's worse than that.
Since a shutout victory over Toronto FC on July 4, LA have given up nearly two-and-a-half goals per game, holding just three of 15 opponents to one or no goals. They've given up three goals three times and four goals four times in that span.
“How we buckle down and defend will definitely get us as far as we want to go,” center back Daniel Steres said this week. “We know we can attack. We know we can score goals. It's just how committed we're going to be – the full team, from goalie to forward – defending and staying in a shape we want.
“We did well earlier in the year, and recently we've been more up and down and given up a lot of goals in some games, [goals] that we're not happy about. So we've gone back and worked on those things to get them right. Because [how we defend is] as far as we're going to go.”
The Galaxy have used a number of combinations on the backline and in midfield, and some have worked better than others. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has favored Steres and Uruguayan defender Diego Polenta in central defense after costly errors by Costa Rican veteran Giancarlo Gonzalez, and Rolf Feltscher has played consistently at right back when healthy. They're stronger in midfield when Jonathan dos Santos is in a triangle with Sebastian Lletget and Joe Corona.
Corona, recovering from a toe injury, is listed as questionable heading into the match.
“Joe's an excellent two-way player,” Steres said. “He gives us a lot going forward, keeping the ball, and he covers a lot of ground, does a lot of work, breaks up a lot of things defensively. If he can't go, it will be a tough mix, but we have plenty of guys – they offer their own things – so I'm not worried.”
If Corona can't go or starts on the bench, Schelotto must decide between Lletget and Favio Alvarez in attacking midfield, or give Lletget a more defensive role, or perhaps field holding midfielders Perry Kitchen or Servando Carrasco next to dos Santos.
Needing a win to earn a home game in the first round, the Galaxy gave up four goals to Vancouver and Portland in losses to finish the regular season, although Schelotto says the defeats to the Whitecaps and Timbers don't count because one point wasn't good enough in either game and LA abandoned a defensive posture to surged forward in search of goals.
LA have been mistake-prone, and without goalkeeper David Bingham, who made a lot of terrific saves this season, the record would be less impressive.
“We're always confident we're going to score goals, but we can't afford any mistakes in this one,” Lletget said. “We've been working on it, and I think it's more of a mentality. We've got the ability in this team, even defensively. We've got some really good guys, but together we've just got to pull this off.”
Lletget said the Galaxy need to be challenged to play their best.
“I don't know why – maybe it's a bad thing, but maybe it's a good thing – we always need a little bit of adversity, and that raises our game. We need a little bit of an obstacle, and we see a challenge, and we always take advantage of it.
“I think when things aren't on the line and things aren't as much at stake, we kind of take our foot off the pedal naturally. I'm not entirely sure why, but that's where we've been at fault this season, I think.”
Bingham sees it, too.
“When we've needed to come out and out a good performance on the field, we've done that,” he said. “At the end of the year, after [clinching our berth in the] playoffs, there's those two games that weren't great. But I think anyone who has actually watched the Galaxy in this league knows that the Galaxy come into the playoffs strong and they finish well. ... If anyone thinks our defense isn't up to the task, well, we'll wait and see.”