At first glance, one might say that Saturday’s match at Robertson Stadium in Houston pits the teams that met each other in the Conference Finals last year. Yes the names of the clubs are the same, but the 2010 version is a stark contrast to the Dynamo-Galaxy you watched last November.
Missing from last year’s roster for Houston are midfielders Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden, both of whom left MLS during the offseason, and forward Brian Ching, who’s been ruled out for this game with a hamstring injury. Consequently, Brad Davis, Houston’s leading scorer up to this point in the season, is the player with the most success when facing LA. In 21 games against the Galaxy, Davis has accounted for four goals and five assists.
Meanwhile, the Galaxy returned their nucleus from the 2009 MLS Cup run in tact, and have now added some new faces to improve the roster. Three of those signings started in the last match, Leonardo, Juninho and Alex Cazumba, all on-loan from Sao Paulo FC in Brazil.
Although not a new face, Edson Buddle appears to have found the “tonic” that he was drinking in 2008, when the New York native had a career year, finishing third in the race for the MLS Golden Boot with 15 goals. Buddle has all three of the Galaxy’s goals in the first two games of the year.
Defensively, 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year Omar Gonzalez continues to grow before our eyes, and now has the look of a veteran, even though it is just his sophomore season in the league. Along the same lines, the Jamaican “backstop,” Donovan Ricketts is back to 100 percent, and I have a feeling might challenge some of the single season goalkeeping records for both the Galaxy and MLS in 2010.
In the previous four years, when LA has come to Robertson Stadium, Houston has been the clear favorite in the match-up. This year, the teams stack up even, with a slight edge in the Galaxy’s favor.
That is not to say that the Dynamo doesn’t have some very talented players that can make an impact on the match, but I think the Galaxy have made such incredible growth in the past 15 months that they’ve closed the gap. The most obvious improvement has come in the defense.
It has been detailed that LA allowed half the number of goals in 2009 that they allowed in 2008 - a huge improvement. What does LA do to make it difficult for their opponent? It’s their discipline and the compact shape of the back five. The four defenders, and a healthy Dema Kovalenko in the midfield, make it very tough for opponents to find space to operate in the final third of the field. Kovalenko is the player that gets the least amount of press, but the way he sits in front of the defenders and “robs” the ball to start the attack in the other direction, is a key component for the Galaxy to have success.
If the young Juninho can learn to take the ball from Dema once he wins it back in the middle of the field that might prove to be the 1-2 punch the Galaxy have been seeking for a number of years.
The Brazilian Report – Part II: I think it is to be expected that the three young Brazilian players the Galaxy have added will have their ups & downs this season. Like me, I think many of you are hoping that there are more ups, than downs. After a solid performance by the group in the home opener vs. New England, the trio had a less impressive game against Chivas USA.
Of the three, Leonardo has been the player that has impressed me the most. Partnering with Gonzalez in the central part of defense, Leonardo not only shows good defensive skills, but has the confidence on the ball to play out of the back, and at least so far, has not tried to do more than he needs to when the ball is at his feet.
Juninho is the player with the biggest upside for me. There is no doubt about his abilities with the ball at his feet, but he has also shown the soccer IQ to make runs off the ball. But, he did disappear a couple of times in the game against Chivas. Those are words that you don’t want to say about your central midfielder. It will be interesting to see which direction he goes in his third appearance of the season.
Lastly, there is one Galaxy player that I have not mentioned. That is LA’s captain, Landon Donovan. Donovan has assisted on each of the Galaxy’s goals this season, but has yet to find the back of the net himself. Donovan has three goals and three assists in eight games for his career against Houston and I expect him to add to that line on Saturday.
LA has not done the greatest job of utilizing the best player in MLS in their first two games, and I will be eager to ask Bruce Arena how that might change this weekend. I hope you tune into FS West, and one way or another we will have some answers to that exact question.