Losing an integral player isn't easy, even for the two-time defending champions. But the top teams need to evolve in order to keep their place atop the heap.
Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena knows that fact better than any other coach in the league. The operating principles within MLS inevitably drag the best teams back toward the middle. Standing still leads to sliding down the table.
And maintaining the status quo – give or take a splashy summer signing – looked on the cards before Mike Magee headed home to Chicago and Robbie Rogers returned to Southern California on Friday. Los Angeles succeeded for the most part with its devastating normalcy, but the decision to stay the course still created a scenario that made the Galaxy somewhat predictable in its movements.
Magee typified a clever attack predicated on changes of speed and a whole lot of ingenuity. Landon Donovan stretches defenses from time to time, but the MLS Cup holders thrived on neat, nippy combination play on the counter and the edge of the penalty area. Los Angeles could one-two the opposition to death, nick a goal when it wanted most of the time and then wait for Omar Gonzalez to pop up on a set piece or Juninho to unleash a strike from distance. It worked for the better part of two years, but Arena understood his team needed to integrate different options to create more space for those tidy sequences on the edge of the area.
Sunday night's demolition of an out-of-sorts Seattle (and that description probably flatters the visitors after a 4-0 hiding, truth be told) provided a frightening glimpse of what the Galaxy can do with alternatives.
Take, for instance, the inclusion of Gyasi Zardes from the start. The former CSU Bakersfield forward isn't a finished product. He is still all sorts of raw and it shows, but he possesses the right blend of pace and power to unsettle opposing defenses. His approach worked against Seattle and it will work against other teams, too. He offers a touchstone in the middle of the park when required and supplies directness to a side already capable of slicing apart the opposition on the break.
Rogers also offers a different look with his natural wide play. Arena reveals his desperation for a winger every time he shunts Sean Franklin into midfield. Magee – for all of his many strengths, and he has quite a few based on his performances over the past couple of years – isn't a winger. Rogers – the former Best XI version, not the present-day edition moving toward fitness and form – definitely fits that mold. He won't always play the final ball correctly, but he will run at players, serve crosses and spread the field.
When Rogers opens the field horizontally and Zardes stretches the field vertically, the Galaxy suddenly possess more room to operate like usual. Adding dimensions may change the team at some level and will weaken the team in the short-term, but the process will eventually facilitate the preferred modus operandi at the sharp end.
Such variation makes the Galaxy – as difficult as it might seem after that demolition of Sounders FC – more dangerous in the final third. Magee's absence will be felt because he contributed significantly to the cause and posed problems for opposing defenses with his superior chemistry with Donovan and Robbie Keane.
But if this move pans out and Rogers and Zardes (or some Designated Player with his qualities) accentuate the strengths of the core already in place, then the Galaxy might just come out ahead in the end.
Five Points – Week 13
1. Lack of awareness sends Philadelphia crashing to defeat in Montreal: Marco Di Vaio rides the line better than any player in MLS. He pokes around and slides into space. He will stray offside frequently (29 times in 11 games, tops in MLS), but he will punish opposing defenders if they drop their marks or permit their attention to slip. Di Vaio's haul on Saturday – three goals inside 32 minutes in the Impact's 5-3 victory over the Union – revealed the peril of failing to properly track the former Italian international.
2. The time for change is quickly approaching for D.C. United: Nothing is working at RFK Stadium right now. United leaks poor goals at the back and struggles to produce anything of note in the opposing penalty area. D.C. boss Ben Olsen tore apart his starting XI once again – file the idea of dropping Dwayne De Rosario, the one player in the side genuinely capable of producing something from nothing, away as a desperate gamble gone awry – without generating the expected results in the 2-0 defeat against Portland. Olsen needs different players and he needs them quickly if United is going to find a way to end the nightmare.
3. Blunt measures still require the proper defending: MLS would look a whole lot easier on the eyes if more coaches adopted Jason Kreis' expansive approach to the game. Real Salt Lake plays the right way and strokes the ball around better than any side in the league. Those aesthetic aspirations come at a cost sometimes, though: Chicago snatched a 1-1 draw in a game it should have lost by producing a fine goal (Quincy Amarikwa's acrobatic finish from close range) from a long throw.
Kreis offered a few thoughts on the depravity of that method of creating chances and questioned its legality after the match. Those concerns are certainly valid, but they will not restore the two points dropped. RSL should focus more on its marking in such situations (two versus one inside six yards is not ideal) in order to ensure its version of the beautiful game emerges triumphantly when confronted with blunter tactics.
To his credit, Kreis confronted the issue directly and rebuked the offending player (the unnamed substitute Yordany Alvarez) after raising his concerns about the direct service from the sideline.
“As much as I complain about foul throws, we still need to take care of our defensive responsibilities,” Kreis told reporters after the game. “If you’re given a mark, then you stay with that mark – if you don’t, then there will be repercussions for him. I was disappointed in that.”
4. Martín Rivero incurs yet another setback: The Colorado schemer suffered an undisclosed injury to his right foot during the Rapids' 2-0 victory over Chivas USA on Saturday. Rivero missed most of the first three months after breaking his right foot during preseason, but this injury is not a recurrence of that knock or a fracture, according to the club website.
Rivero is expected to undergo more tests on Tuesday to determine the extent of the injury. As his role in the buildup to the Rapids' well-worked opener on Saturday suggests, his absence for any length of time robs Oscar Pareja's side of a particularly clever and tidy influence in midfield.
5. Time for Kei Kamara to return to the starting XI: There are certain reasons (harmony and the prospect of a summer move, for example) why Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes hesitated to slide Kamara back into his usual front three. Kamara's Premier League-quality equalizer in Sunday's engaging 1-1 draw with Houston renders most of them irrelevant. As previous seasons suggested, Sporting presents more problems to the opposition when the combative and occasionally wayward Kamara is on the field. Until he departs for good, he warrants his place in the team from the outset.