Sometimes it's about philosophy and discipline more than tactics.
We saw it unfold that way in Tuesday’s night’s soggy 2011 season-opener, as the LA Galaxy were the more cautious and disciplined in a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders—a game never destined to be a tactical or stylistic masterpiece.
Start with conditions, always less than ideal on Qwest Field’s artificial surface. Throw in a little Seattle rain and the downtown ground becomes a blurry zone of waning control and abundant turnovers.
Now add some critical, missing elements. Neither side had use of their primary target man—Blaise Nkufo for Seattle, Juan Pablo Angel for LA—a whopper loss for both.
LA hoped to establish more possession this year, adding offensive variety to complement their effective counterattack. Ángel’s shrewd hold-up play was a central element, so his absence Tuesday gummed up the plan. Same for the home team, which has big issues to sort out now that DP target man Nkufo will no longer be seen in rave green.
When plans unravel, simplicity rules. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena answered the questions about where Landon Donovan would play—for one night, at least. Donovan was wide on the left to start, and then out right for about 30 minutes of the second half. The difference in LA’s midfield shape was Juninho, who played closer to his own goal than in 2010.
Whether this was concession to a slick pitch or a broader strategy for 2011, only Arena could say. But it worked beautifully on Tuesday. By checking his offensive instincts and patrolling deeper, alongside Chris Birchall centrally, Juninho helped stifle Seattle’s primary offensive threat, Fredy Montero, who seldom looked like a game-changer.
Meanwhile, the home team was sorting through familiarity issues, making necessary adjustments. Swedish vet Erik Friberg is now Osvaldo Alonso’s center midfield partner in Seattle. For about 20 minutes Tuesday, the pair seemed attached by a 10-yard rope. They were much too closely aligned, especially when in possession.
LA’s central pairing, Birchall and Juninho, were in smart proximity whenever Seattle had the ball. But what’s more, they were quicker to separate on the transition to offense. Not that LA held the ball much. The Galaxy quickly fell back on what’s comfortable: springing the counter, often on big balls from David Beckham. Sadly, Beckham was off, so the chances came at a trickle.
Still, Birchall frequently got ahead of Juninho, something rarely seen in 2010. And that presented a smidge of danger; it’s harder for defenses to track runners from midfield when they can’t predict whom to track.
Friberg moved his offensive starting position forward by about 10-20 yards as the first half progressed, allowing Seattle to grab hold of the game. But the Galaxy never fret about possession conceded; Arena’s men just bide their time, seeking counters and set-piece chances.
Sure enough, along came the moment. The Sounders lost their discipline and mangled their shape, and LA took full advantage.
Seeing Steve Zakuani take a ball inside, Alonso made an imprudent overlapping adventure inside his own half. Everyone may pick on Friberg’s critically wounded pass. But once the Galaxy’s Todd Dunivant picked off the Swede’s errant outlet, where was Alonso to fill the space in the middle?
Juninho recognized the moment first. He sliced quickly forward as Friberg strained to compress all the available space. Wasn’t going to happen.
In this situation, it normally falls to Alonso to hurry back into the danger zone. If he can’t make it, then it’s on Zakuani to recognize the devolving situation and bust a gut to fill the void. Either that or Alvaro Fernandez should cover the gap, since he didn’t correctly read the angle on Friberg’s initial pass.
Regardless, neither thing happened – 1-0 Galaxy.
And now the game was in LA’s comfort zone. Nursing home a 1-0 result fits the Galaxy like an old jogging shoe. Arena’s side did it three times in the first 10 games alone in 2010.
Arena followed the script he wrote himself: Donovan moved from midfield up to second striker, Beckham returned to the right side and Michael Stephens replaced Mike Magee in 76th minute to give the Galaxy more defensive running.
With ample nerve and ultimate 4-4-2 discipline, the Galaxy ably rode out the Sounders’ pressure and picked up a massive three points in game one of the MLS season. Just 305 to go.
On Sunday, March 20, the Galaxy will host the New England Revolution in their home opener, presented by Pechanga Resort & Casino, at 5 p.m. at The Home Depot Center. The first 15,000 fans will receive 2011 magnet schedules. Tickets are available for that match, starting at 25. BUY NOW