Match previews

Preview: Union at LA Galaxy

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at LA Galaxy
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: StubHub Center
When: Saturday, June 20 at 10:30 pm
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Kevin Stott; Linesmen: Chris Strickland, Apolinar Mariscal; Fourth Official: Alex Chilowicz

After a disappointing loss to NYCFC and a dull, scoreless US Open Cup match decided by penalties, Philadelphia Union embark on a difficult eight day stretch that starts in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Much like the New York City team that recently surprised themselves by taking three points off the Union, LA is in that strange holding pattern necessitated by MLS’ summer schedule. In their current incarnation, they are stout and ornery, but rarely threatening. The addition of Steven Gerrard (along with the health of Robbie Keane and Sebastien Lletget) will undoubtedly turn the Galaxy into a MLS Cup contender.

Tactics in a holding pattern

Gerrard’s skill set, in particular his long range passing and abilities in tight spaces around the box, are meant to replace Landon Donovan the way a rich guy switches from a Ferrari to a tricked out SUV. This season, the Galaxy have acutely felt Donovan’s absence as they seek to break out of defense. Although Robbie Keane is a wonderful player, he is a much more effective tool once a counterattack is underway than the motor behind it.

The Galaxy, then, have spent much of the season relying on the precise crossing of Stefan Ishizaki to create big chances. The Swedish winger delivers an excellent ball. But Bruce Arena must be cognizant of the fact that the Ishizaki-to-Alan-Gordon connection leading LA to a Cup is about as likely as Peter Nowak getting another job in MLS.

There is, however, only one Landon Donovan to run at defenses. So the Galaxy will bring in Gerrard to play balls through defenses and make non-Landon attackers into consistent threats.

Until Gerrard arrives, Arena will pick his shape and personnel based on health and form.

Shape shifting

Los Angeles will vacillate between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 depending on the health and availability of Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane. Fully fit and without international obligations, the young American and veteran Irishman combine to stretch and pull defenses like few other combos in MLS. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in Seattle are clearly better on the break. But in an established attack, Keane and Zardes can match their northern neighbors’ movement and skill.

Though both players returned to the fold Wednesday night in LA’s US Open Cup victory, Bruce Arena may choose to continue with a 4-5-1 and either leave Zardes out or push him wide against the Union. Not that Zardes won’t be a welcome addition to a struggling offense, but Sebastian Lletget has taken up the No. 10 role over the past two matches and collected two goals (plus another that was disallowed on a questionable call).

Lletget could certainly move wide himself, but the Galaxy have fought all year to get from defense to offense. Moving the first player who has shown a talent for popping up across the midfield as a Maidana-like option seems like someone Bruce Arena will be loathe to displace. And the simple fact is that the need for such a player has been amplified by the quiet thud with which midfielder Mika Vayrynen has landed in MLS.

Vayrynen played short in the first half (L) and disappeared in the second (R). Defensive involvement in the second half shows how deep he sat.

Vayrynen played short in the first half (L) and disappeared in the second (R). Defensive involvement in the second half shows how deep he sat.

Meek-a Vayrynen

The Finnish midfielder has taken up Marcelo Sarvas’ old spot next to Juninho this season. And while he displays the calm, short passing game that can support a swift counterattack, Vayrynen has become less and less confident in his long range passing, and, simultaneously, he has become increasingly conservative in his movement. As a result, LA’s 4-4-2 often features a hole in the center of the pitch so big you could drive Robbie Keane’s ego through it even as it angrily gestured at its teammates’ egos.

With only 16 goals through 17 games, Arena is likely to stick with the red-hot Lletget to start, even with the midfielder coming off extended mid-week minutes. A diamond 4-4-2 with Juninho behind Lletget is a possibility, particularly at home against a Union side that is guaranteed to sit deep. However, Arena is a coach that tends to stick with what works. And even though LA floundered in the second half against Columbus, they dominated the first half and Lletget was at the center of everything.

Unsuccessful passes from the LA defense in the first half vs Columbus shows that the centerbacks rarely had to go long. In the 2nd half, Columbus pressed and forced long balls to Jose Villareal.

Unsuccessful passes from the LA defense in the first half vs Columbus shows that the centerbacks rarely had to go long. In the 2nd half, Columbus pressed and forced long balls to Jose Villareal.

Rogers on a roll, then not

Notably, LA controlled the game at Columbus without leading scorer Alan Gordon. Using the teensy Jose Villareal as a target striker only worked because the Galaxy were able to carry the ball out of the back with unnerving consistency.

The majority of this work was done by Robbie Rogers, who used give-and-goes to take over a road match against Columbus in a thrilling and confounding opening forty-five minutes. In the second half, Gregg Berhalter wisely moved Tony Tchani closer to Rogers to prevent the left back from taking apart Hector Jimenez like an old VCR. Columbus immediately took control of the match as LA had no way to bypass the first line of defense and, with Villareal up top, no long outlet.

Looking for conclusions from this analysis of the LA attack? You will be disappointed. The Galaxy do not have an offensive Plan A yet. Gordon has been an admirable stop-gap, and Lletget is showing immediate promise. But Bruce Arena has the MVP back, and he only has Zardes for a short time before the Gold Cup begins. Expect them both to play this weekend as the Galaxy scrape for points in a competitive Western Conference.

In the second half, Columbus took away LA's central defenders' time. And without a big target man, they couldn't move the ball or go long.

In the second half, Columbus took away LA’s central defenders’ time. And without a big target man, they couldn’t move the ball or go long.

Defense comes around

Keane, Zardes, Gordon, Lletget. No matter who leads the LA offense out Saturday, there will be talent and question marks abound.

In back, it’s a different story. Since Omar Gonzalez returned to the lineup following Tommy Meyer’s short stint as an undercover agent for Orlando City FC, the Galaxy have given up three goals in five matches. Gonzalez and Leonardo have paired up to solidify a backline that features a rotating array of something-like defenders. Baggio Husidic, Oscar Sorto, Dan Gargan, DeLaGarza, and Robbie Rogers have all had a cup of coffee in back since mid-May. All have been servicable, with DeLaGarza the best of the bunch when healthy.

Generally, though, the only teams that have troubled LA since Gonzalez’s return have been those that can successfully overwhelm the central midfield. Both Leonardo and Gonzalez are surprisingly agile on the turn, but they are also well-coached. The LA central defenders do not want players running directly at them, they much prefer to track runners after the ball has gone wide.

With Meram central, Columbus overloaded the midfield and released Higuain to run at the defense (this play led to Omar Gonzalez' caution).

With Meram central, Columbus overloaded the midfield and released Higuain to run at the defense (this play led to Omar Gonzalez’ caution).

Columbus kept their wide men on the flanks in the first half and rarely troubled the Galaxy back line. But once Berhalter pulled Justin Meram more central and pushed Waylon Francis up the wing, the Crew began, well, cruising. The waterfall effect was clear: With Meram in central areas, Juninho and Vayrynen had to stay in the middle and leave Robbie Rogers to fend for himself. Ethan Finlay was fine with that and immediately exploited Rogers’ lackluster defending technique.

As Columbus had more time on the ball, they were able to push Federico Higuain higher, so he could sneak behind the LA midfield. In the 70th minute, Omar Gonzalez got a well-deserved caution for chopping down Higuain after he broke behind the midfield — and also defender Dan Gargan, caught in space with Meram inside — to run at the defense.

Who to copy?

Can the Union emulate the Crew’s dominant second half against LA?

Probably not. In Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux, Philly cannot recreate Meram’s skillset. Neither Philly winger is very effective when tucking into the midfield, and Le Toux tends to drift up to the defensive line before tucking in no matter what.

Jim Curtin could opt to use Zach Pfeffer in place of Wenger on the left, counting on Fabinho’s aggressive play behind Pfeffer to keep Ishizaki from finding the space to cross. And I could go into more detail about the advantages Pfeffer might offer. But why bother? It would be like detailing the advantages of a fruit cup or side salad over the fries. Sure, they’re better for you. But you and I both know you’re getting the fries.

The Union may be able to more successfully ape Vancouver’s victory over LA from June 7. The Whitecaps broke LA’s 23-match home unbeaten streak by sitting in passing lanes like a team of Brian Carrolls then breaking forward and, importantly, bringing Octavio Rivero into play. Once Rivero, the striker, was on the ball, he forced the central defenders to attack, which allowed Kekuta Manneh and Cristian Techera to take off up the wings.

Sound like a 2014 Union side you remember?

The key for Vancouver was recognizing how LA wanted to build attacks. Although they often bring the ball up the left, the Galaxy want to work it to the right where Ishizaki can take a quick touch and either send in a cross or find Keane on the move. Vancouver gave space on the left and closed down quickly on the right, picking off passes into the middle and breaking quickly through Rivero.

Philly may bring their striker — either Sapong or Aristeguieta if he is able — into play early, or they may use Maidana in that pseudo-holding role (pseudo in that he’s holding to start an immediate counter, not to build an offense).

UnionLAConclusion: LA 0-0 Union

It is difficult to see the Union beating LA on the road. However, it is also extremely hard to predict how the Galaxy will set up offensively. LA has only taken a lead into halftime four times this season. And at 995 minutes played with the score tied, the Galaxy have spent more time with the scoreline even than any other team in MLS (and it’s not even close: RSL is next, 117 minutes behind). So an early goal would be a surprise.

However, LA has outscored opponents 8-4 in the first 30 minutes of matches. They are vulnerable in the middle 30 minutes, allowing eight and only scoring one so far this season. In the final 30, the Galaxy have scored seven and allowed seven.

But again, this is a team in flux. The offensive firepower is, at least until the Gold Cup begins, finally (almost) healthy and available. The defense has been strong despite massive turnover in the fullback positions. And Bruce Arena is still the best coach in MLS.

For the Union, this is a match in which one point is enough. A midweek home match against Seattle and a must-win against Montreal at PPL Park follow in quick succession. Curtin’s men need to aim to get through a grueling week with at least five points. And they need to do it without any major injuries.


  1. DarthLos117 says:

    So frustrating how thin we are…we need more options.
    So tacically limited.
    What I would give for more options on the wings….
    I keep Wenger in…prefer Pfeffer as sub

  2. Isn’t LeToux out for 4-5 weeks with an MCL sprain?
    It may be time to pull the trigger and try Pfeffer and Ayuk on the wings.
    Just a thought…

  3. Why would we need new players?!? Wenger’s been playing great, or at least it seems from the fact he starts all the time. Just keep trotting the same guys out there, Curtin. Wonder why they all get injured…

  4. Boy, would the odds makers ever predict a 0-0 game. Vegas would have to give at least half a gol somewhere. This is an important game for this team. Set the tone early for the 2nd half of season or more of the same? We will see.

  5. I’ll be there! My brother and I are flying out for the game. A month or so ago, I hadn’t considered it. However, their form of late (including the two losses) has been really good. Win or lose, we’ll be dooping along.

    Oh, and I’ve only got one loss in games I’ve been to: 2011 in Carson. So, have faith. If you believe in magic, they’ll win because I’m there. DOOP!

  6. And noticing that you have Wenger on the bench, is there any reason to believe that would happen? Has Curtin said anything to that effect? I would love to see Pfeffer on the left wing, but I’m afraid the mafia’s control over Curtin is too strong. “You play that miserable SOB, or it’s curtains, Curtin!” That’s how I imagine the conversation going every game…

  7. Great One says:

    I know it won’t happen this game on the road, but with our wing play being atrocious and Le Toux being injured, why not try a 2 fwd setup with Sapong and Nando? I actually think they may play well off of eachother.

  8. Scottymac says:

    LAG are 5-1-2 at home with a +5 GD.

    Union are 1-5-2 on the road with a -7 GD, or 5 points of 24 on offer.

    A 0-0 tie would be a glorious result for this team and should net Curtin a 2 year extension. LeToux is out. Wenger will play. Floppenot got to fly a Fat Burger when he’s way out west.

    2-0 LAG.

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