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Monday MLS Breakdown: Solid Defensive Foundation Fuels Galaxy's Playoff Hopes

By Kyle McCarthy

Want to know how far Los Angeles has progressed since Bruce Arena took the helm 51 weeks ago? Forget about combing through the best-selling books, the tactical assessments and the breathless tabloid accounts for the answer. One pair of statistical compilations just about explains the transformation.

In 2008, the Galaxy conceded two or more goals in 23 of 30 matches, including every match played in September and at least three games in every full month of MLS play. Los Angeles finished bottom of the league with 62 goals conceded, 11 goals more than second-bottom D.C. United.

In 2009, the Galaxy has conceded two or more goals in five of 20 matches, including just three matches since April 4. Los Angeles is currently tied for third in the league with 21 goals conceded, two goals more than league leaders Chivas USA.

For the first time in quite a long time, the Galaxy has a disciplined and discernible system (4-1-3-2) and an approach (tenacious and intelligent with a defensive slant and a willingness to break out when possible) that makes them difficult to break down. It isn't always pleasing to the eye, but sometimes it is and other times, it doesn't really matter. With two world-class players in David Beckham and Landon Donovan and a blend of diligent rookies, savvy veterans like Eddie Lewis and Stefani Miglioranzi and a hot goalkeeper in Donovan Ricketts, the Galaxy boasts just about everything required in a good side.

“In the beginning of the year, we were not a good team, but we had a good approach to things,” Arena said. “We hung in there and got results on days where you wouldn't typically get a result. Now that we've grown as a team and have more quality, it's important to get three points. Over the past six games, we have five wins. You can't do better than that. That's great.”

The recent six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) has displayed the difference between last year's wafer-thin Galaxy side and this year's solid and deep cast of characters. Jovan Kirovski popped up as the latest role player to impact a match with the well-taken game winner in Saturday's 2-1 victory in New England. Other role players like Todd Dunivant, Alecko Eskandarian, Alan Gordon and Josh Saunders have stepped up during the streak with timely goals, stops and contributions to help the Galaxy amass points.

The rotating cast of unheralded contributors provides yet another sign that the new Galaxy functions as a unit rather than as an ill-fitting collection of individual parts like it did in the past.

“The main thing is that we have good team chemistry,” Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We all get along and we're willing to fight for each other. The other main thing is that the soccer has been good. Beckham's got in the mix and we're all more confident. We've been playing the ball around the field better and scoring more goals.”

Pegging just how far Arena has taken the Galaxy will come when the MLS Cup playoffs hit in November. Arena said his team needs “three or four more wins” to make sure it returns to the playoffs for the first time since winning MLS Cup 2005 under Steve Sampson, but it's hard to see them missing out in this sort of form and with other playoff hopefuls bumbling and stumbling. With Beckham and Donovan in the side and the defense hard to unpack (though pace may provide the best avenue to do so), the Galaxy won't be an easy out for any team in a two-legged tie or a one-off fixture.

Those playoff aspirations are on the back burner for now. Arena said the Galaxy needs to continue to focus on reproducing the resolute performances that have transformed it from also-ran to playoff contender.

“As good as (the recent six-game streak has) been, we'll wake up tomorrow morning and see that there are eight teams in this league right next to each other,” Arena said. “It's a challenge each and every game. When there's an opportunity to get three points, you have to get them.”

Coaches, bench personnel on guard as renewed directive takes hold

The additional attention paid to bench decorum in recent weeks isn't an accident. MLS and U.S. Soccer recently renewed a preseason directive to encourage fourth officials to stamp out churlish behavior on the sidelines, according to several league sources.

Since the All-Star Game, two coaches and one player have incurred rebukes for bench incidents. Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis picked up a two-match ban and $3,500 fine (though a punishment perhaps accelerated because of Kreis' status as a repeat offender) for an incident that took place prior to the renewed directive. New England head coach Steve Nicol also received a two-match ban and $1,500 in fines after his send-off for comments made late in the Revolution's 1-1 draw with Toronto FC on Aug. 1. In the latest incident, Houston midfielder Brad Davis surprisingly earned his walking papers on Thursday night for hopping off the bench and taking a step towards FC Dallas' Dave van den Bergh in the Dynamo's 1-0 loss in Frisco.

Given the behavior that occurs weekly on MLS sidelines, it's tough to argue with the spirit of the directive. There is a problem there and it does need fixing because referees deserve far more respect than they are generally accorded. The coaches around the league only have themselves to blame for the additional emphasis on correcting their behavior.

One wonders, however, whether the implementation is a blunt solution for a more nuanced problem. Davis' ejection, in particular, appeared an illogical application of a logical rule. Add in the rather ill-defined appeals process – an often uneven and futile one for coaches devoid of the protections afforded by a union – and the disproportionate power held by the fourth official and the directive now becomes subject to harsh and strict interpretation with serious consequences. Those consequences come despite the unanswered and likely more significant question of whether the directive punishes the effect (poor behavior by coaches and personnel) without properly acknowledging or dealing with the root cause in most cases (inconsistent or questionable referee performance).

The questions about the directive and its no-nonsense implementation, for now at least, are on the back burner. The message to MLS coaches and bench personnel, however, is unyielding: shape up or ship out for a match or two.

Vermes settles into new role in Kansas City

Kansas City technical director Peter Vermes is a busy man. In addition to his personnel role with the Wizards, Vermes picked up a new job title last week: interim coach.

Vermes said in a phone interview on Wednesday that he's going to have to find a way to juggle both gigs with ample help from the talented staff around him as the season winds to a close.

“I have a lot of responsibilities,” Vermes said. “You just have to figure it out.”

One of those responsibilities involves trying to figure out who will eventually replace Curt Onalfo as the Wizards' new permanent boss. Vermes said he was pleased with the early response to the opening, but noted that the Wizards would move through the process carefully over the next few months.

“I can't believe how many people who sent in CVs and resumes once they heard the job was open,” Vermes said. “We're talking a little bit about the process now.”

Others may have to take the lead on the coaching search for now as Vermes has to focus on improving the Wizards on the field. Vermes said everyone in the organization bears some blame for the situation that led to Onalfo's recent dismissal. In order to turn things around and mount a playoff push, the Wizards will have to raise their intensity and shoulder more personal responsibility on the field, Vermes said.

Week 21 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers

Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Omar Cummings,FW, Colorado


Tough to go against Conor Casey's hat trick, but the honor goes to teammate Cummings for his role in all four goals in Colorado's 4-0 win over Chivas USA in Commerce City on Saturday night. Cummings' cutback gave Pablo Mastroeni plenty of space to lash home his first goal since 2005 less than a minute into the contest. Cummings then provided strike partner Casey with a pair of feeds for his first two goals. To cap off a whirlwind first half, Cummings blew past countryman Shavar Thomas in first-half stoppage time and drew a red card and a (questionable) penalty kick (the contact first took place outside the box, as Rapids color man Marcelo Balboa correctly pointed out) from the burly Chivas defender to set up Casey's natural hat-trick.

Who may have wished he was anywhere else but Commerce City on Saturday night? Lance Parker, GK, Chivas USA

Parker's teammates marked his first career start by providing little resistance to the Rapids in a diabolical first half. Parker maybe could have done better with Casey's chip for the Rapids' second after just four minutes, but there is no blame to lay at his feet for the Goats' complete and utter first-half no-show.

The Starting XI

1. “There are a lot of things that he does,” Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena said after Landon Donovan scored a stunning left-footed volley to set the Galaxy on its way to a 2-1 win in New England on Saturday night. “His finish was fabulous. It was a great goal. His passing and his running off the ball, his ability to take on players. It's a combination of all of those things you want to see in an attacking player. He's certainly doing a good job for our team on the defensive side of the ball as well. He's become a really complete player. I'm proud to see his progress. It's been great.”

2. “The goal came out of nowhere,” Revolution captain Steve Ralston said of Donovan's goal of the year contender. “There was a cross and it comes right to him. What are you going to say? He bangs it on his left foot into the far side netting. You just have to say, hey, it's a great finish.”

3. If I'm Crew head coach Robert Warzycha, I'm keeping two players on every corner kick from now until the end of the season. With the Crew's aerial prowess on set pieces –  substitute Adam Moffat scored the Crew's third goal from a corner in its 3-0 win over San Jose in San Francisco on Saturday night – and the willingness of opposing teams to bunch players inside the penalty area combat the Crew's aerial power, the Crew might benefit from forcing opposing defenses to keep a second man deep in the corner to guard against the short corner as the ball gets pumped into the area.

4. Warzycha also did well to not let the game progress too far into the second half without altering his somewhat disjointed side as the scoreline didn't accurately reflect a rather even first 60 minutes or so. Warzycha threw Alejandro Moreno and Emmanuel Ekpo into the fray with a half an hour (or 27 minutes in Ekpo's case) to play and the duo sparked the match to life. Ekpo's running down the right side posed problems for the Earthquakes for the remainder of the day, while Moreno converted the opener after a series of headers and an Ekpo cross set the table for him inside six yards.

5. If San Jose is going to find joy going forward as its season winds to a close, it will need considerably more from its wide players than it received on Saturday.
 
6. Seattle probably deserved a point in its 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake in Sandy on Saturday night, but RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando's recognition and awareness snatched it away from them. The veteran stopper noted that both Sounders FC centerbacks were inside the RSL penalty area after Jhon Kennedy Hurtado had directed the remnants of a corner kick wide of Rimando's goal and hurried his resulting goal kick down the field. Rimando's Route One boot isolated Robbie Findley on Pete Vagenas and the RSL forward atoned for a couple of earlier misses by beating Vagenas (with the aid of a bounce) and firing to the far post. The goal infuriated Seattle coach Sigi Schmid. “I’m not happy with how they performed,” Schmid said. “It’s one thing for the opponent to beat you, it’s another thing for you to make a silly mistake. Some guys tried to get away with not putting as much effort in as they needed to. When I see a lack of effort, that bothers me.”

7. Effort wasn't a problem for RSL forward Fabian Espindola. Too often this season, the Argentine hitman hasn't submitted a performance in harmony with his ability. Not on Saturday night. He buzzed around actively, provided the odd cross and pestered Seattle defenders. Perhaps Rachid El Khalifi's arrival – the Dutch winger spent 10 years playing in Espindola's wide-left spot in the 4-3-3 over in Holland, though he came in on the right wing for Clint Mathis to make his MLS debut against Seattle – shook Espindola from his stupor.

8. Conor Casey likes to score in bunches. Eight of his 11 goals – including the three he scored to notch his second hat-trick of the year in Saturday night's 4-0 win over Chivas USA in Commerce City –  have come in three games. Casey also scored all eight of his goals coming into the Chivas match in two streaks: four in back-to-back games in early April and four in three consecutive games in May. Casey's streaky tendency spells trouble for Chicago, Colorado's next opponent on Aug. 23.

9. “We went down 2-0 so quick, it was shocking,” Chivas USA midfielder Jesse Marsch said after his depleted side laid an egg after two weekends off. “I guess you have to say we weren't ready to play. I don't know. I felt coming into the game that we were ready to go, but apparently we weren't. We were very easy to play against and we were giving up chances by the bunches. We've got to put it behind us and move forward here and find a way to get out of this funk.”

10. Perhaps the searing conditions and the tired legs took their toll, but it appeared that Houston and Chicago allowed far too much space in the Dynamo's 3-2 victory. Soft defending and soft goals (Houston scored off a throw-in, for example) permitted by both sides. Only fitting that a soft penalty (Brandon Prideaux's tackle on Corey Ashe as he surged into the penalty area with less than ten minutes to play may have gone unpunished in other matches) decided the game.

11. Fire midfielder Peter Lowry made sure his first MLS goal wasn't a softie. Cuauhtemoc Blanco should never have had to the chance to serve the ball, admittedly, but Lowry's acrobatic, side-volley finish to level the Robertson Stadium proceedings at 2-2 would have certainly challenged for Goal of the Week had Donovan not accomplished the audacious at Gillette Stadium a night earlier.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.