The LA Galaxy’s life after Bruce Arena got off to a disastrous start, with Major League Soccer’s most successful team collapsing by midseason, eventually disintegrating into the bottom of the league’s standings.
Never in their wildest dreams did president Chris Klein, general manager Peter Vagenas and head coach Curt Onalfo dream that their team would finish behind expansion Minnesota United FC. Now, one year later, Onalfo is gone, and Vagenas is no longer in charge of the squad.
Mix in the arrival of Los Angeles FC, and you have a defining year for a league staple. Rebound, and the Galaxy can against aspire to being the Lakers of Major League Soccer. Continue to flounder, and the team may be relegated to being LA’s Clippers-esque little brother.
Here’s three points of focus ahead of the Timbers’ Sunday trip to Carson:
1. How much has LA’s defense improved?
Among the Galaxy’s myriad offseason acquisitions are three players given spots in the team’s first-choice backline: right back Rolf Fletscher, left-center back Jørgen Skjelvik and goalkeeper David Bingham. For an area of the field where continuity almost can’t be overvalued, the imports mark a titanic shakeup.
And not without reason. Amid a season of embarrassing numbers, including the team’s league-low 32 points, the Galaxy’s 67 goals allowed was the most worrisome. Whatever reasons you can think of for a defense failing – lack of talent; poor execution; being overexposed; bad personnel fits – the Galaxy embodied it. Continuity is undoubtedly valuable, but if you’re trying to maintain the continuity of something that’s bad? Love yourself and move on.
That’s what head coach Sigi Schmid (who also functions as LA’s general manager) has done, leaving only center back Michaël Ciani and left back/captain Ashley Cole from last year’s defense. The early results, though, aren’t encouraging. In six preseason games, the five-team MLS champions conceded 12 goals, hinting the issues that undermined the defense’s 2017 results could carry over into the new season.
2. Galaxy wingers will fully test Timbers outside backs
Put LA’s defense in a mirror, and you’ll see its attack, a reverse image of the team’s greatest weakness. In players like Ola Kamara and Giovanni dos Santos, the Galaxy have attackers with the talent to claim MLS Best XI honors. Their presence at the top of LA’s likely 4-4-2 variant will preoccupy the heart of Portland’s defense.
And yet, Kamara and dos Santos may not be the Timbers’ biggest concerns. On LA’s right, Romain Alessandrini will be matched up against Marco Farfan, who will likely start in the injury absence of Vytas. The former Marseille standout delivered a 13-goal, 12-assist debut last season, proving to be the Galaxy’s most productive player. For Farfan – a 19-year-old with six games’ experience – it could prove a trial by fire.
On the other side, Emmanuel Boateng is on the short list of players who can claim to be MLS’ quickest. While that normally isn’t a major problem for Alvas Powell, it may demand the Jamaican right aback be more judicious with his runs. Get caught up field – either all the way in attack or just slightly into midfield – and Boateng will have a free run at Larrys Mabiala. And for all the virtues Mabiala offers, the ability to capture an MLS jack rabbit may not be one of them.
That’s the worst-case scenario: The fullbacks getting beat; Kamara making runs; the space opens up for dos Santos or Kamara just wins some one-on-one battles. The best-case, though, it also possible. The Timbers’ talented fullback corps have the potential to neutralize LA’s most dangerous options.
3. Sigi Schmid has something to prove
What a tough gig, right? Schmid has won more games than any other coach in MLS history, and while part of that is a function of being a giant through some of MLS’ lean times, the man has receipts. There’s no such thing as a kind of giant. This man is a league legend for a reason.
Problem: A legend’s status is about the past. And the closer you move to the present, the less legendary Schmid looks.
After taking over for Onalfo last summer, Schmid posted a 2-8-4 record in his Carson return, a marked downturn from the 6-10-4 line LA put up under its previous boss. Add in Schmid’s half-season during his last campaign in Seattle (going 6-12-2 by the 2016 All-Star break), and MLS’ winningest boss is 8-20-6 over his last full season.
That record would have finished at the bottom of MLS last season, two points back of both the Galaxy and D.C. United. And it was posted with two of the last decade’s most successful clubs.
Schmid overhauled LA’s technical staff in the offseason, bringing in a number of people who were with him in Seattle. Together, the new Galaxy brain trust remade the roster, bringing proven MLS talents like Kamara and midfielder Perry Kitchen. On paper, the team is far from perfect, but in terms of raw talent, the roster certainly seems improved.
Has Schmid improved, though? To the extent the man can still forge a winning squad, his last 34 games inspire doubts.
Both on and off the field, 2018 will be crucial for the Galaxy’s future, but for Sigi Schmid, the present has to be in focus. Whatever happens over the next eight months will reshape his future; and his potentially his past, as well.