The LA Galaxy were a poorly managed, free-running team through the first eight games of the season. They dropped numerous home points (11 of a possible 15, to be exact) and less than a quarter of the way into his debut season as Galaxy manager, fans were calling for Curt Onalfo’s dismissal. Expensive offseason acquisitions were not at all fitting together, and although major injuries to key contributors hurt, the talent was there to get results, and it wasn’t happening.
This all changed when one player got injured and Onalfo worked up the guts to make an unprecedented switch.
Losing 2-0 at home to the Chicago Fire last week, these two things happened in quick succession, and it likely brought confidence back to the team and the locker room back to Onalfo.
First, Jermaine Jones went down with an injury late in the first half, ruling him out for three to four weeks. Emmanuel Boateng was his replacement, switching the Galaxy’s formation from a 4-2-3-1 with Gyasi Zardes on the wing and Giovani dos Santos up front to a 4-4-2 that paired Zardes and Dos Santos at striker and allowed the Mexican attacker to play in a more creative role underneath Zardes, giving more attacking liberty to Romain Alessandrini.
Previously, Jones had played as a “forward destroyer” tasked with wreaking havoc high up the field and playing mostly under a lone forward, as he did late last season for Colorado. Jermaine, notorious for his lack of discipline, played where he pleased and, at age 35, often did not bother to track back defensively. Defensive midfielder Joao Pedro and center mid Baggio Husidic, who played as a box-to-box No. 8, were often overrun without much attacking reward. It was a high-risk, little reward situation.
When Jones exited, the straight up 4-4-2 exponentially simplified the game, and allowed LA to focus on their strengths. Zardes got to play as the hard-working No. 9 he is, Dos Santos got freedom to roam behind him, Boateng got to play really wide and feast on the opposing full back, and Alessandrini got to be the focal point of the attack from his position on the wing. Also, and perhaps most importantly, Pedro and Husidic got sit deep and protect the backline.
Second, Onalfo pulled veteran center back Jelle Van Damme in the 33rd-minute, a move decried by many on twitter and one that to some signaled Onalfo’s imminent demise. It was, to put it bluntly, extremely ballsy from the first-year manager.
Van Damme had had a poor game to that point, but was clearly not the obvious problem with the Galaxy. He was pulled as a signal to the Galaxy that Onalfo was the man in charge, and he would not stand for consistent poor results. Dave Romney, a 23-year old Irvine native, replaced him and put in a steady 57 minutes of work.
This switch, rarely seen before in MLS, was also a message to the team that individual hero-ball was not the solution to the Galaxy’s issues. Van Damme had played to that point as what we’ll call an “overlapping center back,” a position that obviously does not exist but illustrates well the Belgian’s tendency to sprint forward into the attack and spend time much too far forward for a 6’3” center back. He is, in less destructive ways, similar to Jones.
These two factors combined to help LA storm back and steal a 2-2 draw against Chicago. Not a wonderful result in itself, but the second half was a promising show of resilience from such an embattled team.
On Sunday, the Galaxy had their first chance to prove that the comeback was not a fluke, and they did exactly that in resounding fashion. Playing on national television, they went up to Harrison, New Jersey and put a licking on the New York Red Bulls to the tune of a comfortable 3-1 victory.
Van Damme was back in the starting XI and played much more reserved. Still injured, Jones was obviously not in the lineup, and they stuck with the 4-4-2. Here’s what it looked like:
It alternated between an empty bucket 4-4-2, a 4-1-3-2 with a “Y” midfield, and a Red Bull-style 4-2-2-2. LA thrived on building through the right side then switching to a wide-open Boateng, who feasted on Connor Lade and consistently ripped low-crosses from the touchline into the top of the six-yard box. Alessandrini scored twice in the first 10 minutes, and NYRB never came back.
Most importantly, it was organized. Both wingers diligently tracked back and the two deep midfielders suffocated Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips. They rarely broke shape and not once did a player neglect defensive duties to sprint forward and join the attack. This is pretty clearly their best lineup.
When Jones returns, which won’t be long, Onalfo faces a decision. Does he play his big-name, big-money US international, or does he play his best possible lineup, which happens to not include that big money player? The correct decision is the latter, but Jones is a very polarizing player and will not react well to be left out of the starting lineup. Onalfo’s a young head coach with a whole lot of pressure to win now because it could be his job on the line.
The truth is that LA are better without Jones, period. Whether Onalfo first realizes it and then acts on it will be a very interesting storyline to follow over the next few weeks.
[Photo: Getty Images]