CARSON, Calif. – It was a limited stint, just 20 minutes or so, but the way Romain Alessandrini sparked the LA Galaxy in his first appearance since April suggests that his presence could be a difference-maker in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The French winger, coming back from meniscus root surgery on his left knee, gave a rather lumbering Galaxy a huge lift in a 2-1 Round One triumph at Minnesota United on Sunday. He assisted Jonathan dos Santos' decisive goal and put two shots on frame, just as many as Zlatan Ibrahimovic managed in 90-plus minutes.
Might Alessandrini, one of LA's three Designated Players, be the wild card in Thursday night's (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN4, TVAS in Canada) Western Conference Semifinal against LAFC?
“[That performance is] the kind of thing you expect from a player like him,” said midfielder Servando Carrasco. “It was a limited cameo, but you could see that spark. He's a guy who can create chances from nothing, so it's a nice little card to have in your back pocket if the game is tight.
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“That's something I'd be worried about if I was [lined up against him].”
Alessandrini isn't 90-minutes fit, so he figures to come off the bench at Banc of California Stadium if LA need him in the second half. It's an intriguing possibility in MLS's most anticipated showdown of the year, one that could come down to which side gets the better of the other in midfield.
Both teams are likely to be missing starters in midfield, as the Galaxy's Joe Corona is dealing with a toe injury. For LAFC, Mark-Anthony Kaye suffered a hamstring injury in Canada's Concacaf Nations Cup victory last week over the US men’s national team. He's doubtful to feature.
The Galaxy's best midfield combination has Corona and Sebastian Lletget next to Dos Santos – Perry Kitchen stepped into the No. 6 role in Corona's absence in Minnesota – but head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto has several options, including attacking midfielder Favio Alvarez.
LAFC boss Bob Bradley also has the midfield depth, but Kaye’s absence could be a particularly difficult blow. What he does, often in tandem with Eduard Atuesta, isn't easily replaced.
“We know he's a really good player and very important for LAFC,” Schelotto said of Kaye, “but they have a lot of players [who are] very good. Maybe [Lee] Nguyen will play ... but obviously, [Kaye's absence would be felt] because he's a big player.”
The fight should be tense in midfield, where past versions of El Trafico have been decided.
“I think it's how the midfield provides for their attacking options,” Lletget said. “I think that's really how we'll tell the difference [and decide] who wins in this game. Who can feed their top three the better balls. I think it will be very interesting. Very tight in there. It's going to be difficult. There's not a lot of space.”
The creativity on the flanks will be also key. Carlos Vela, who netted a single-season record 34 goals, has primarily worked from the right flank, although he's also played in the middle since Brian Rodriguez arrived in August. Cristian Pavon, who has mostly played on the left, has been the Galaxy's chief creative force since he joined the team two-and-a-half months ago.
Alessandrini, who scored 24 goals with 21 assists during first two seasons with LA, could be the ace in the hole. The Galaxy, streaking to start the campaign, were inconsistent after he was hurt in an April 19 win over Houston.
“He's just so versatile,” Lletget said. “He can come inside or stay out wide, balls to feet, balls into space. You can find him in tight spaces, and he just does a great job [with] delivery. ... Maybe it was [his injury that slowed us down], now looking back at that moment in time. It was kind of a rollercoaster [after that].”
Mexican youngster Uriel Antuna has enjoyed a promising season – he's had six goals and five assists while on loan from Manchester City – but doesn't do the things Alessandrini does.
“Romain can play one-on-one, like Antuna,” Schelotto said. “But he can organize more play and connect with Ibra, with the other midfielders. He can keep the ball more, give the pass, more so than Antuna.”
Alessandrini, who is out of contract at year's end, said his performance in Minnesota “gave me a lot of confidence.” He's ready to do whatever is asked of him.
“The past six months was hard for me, but I'm glad to be back and right now I feel really good,” he said. “I give all the time what I have for this club, for my teammates. This is part of my character."