LA Galaxy host Portland Timbers for the second time this season with neither team in sparkling form, though the Timbers can at least point to an unbeaten month of May after 3 draws and the win against Chicago. LA’s form has been little short of catastrophic, with only 1 win in the 8 MLS matches since they defeated the Timbers 3-1 in April. They’ve lost the last three, as well as losing to Carolina Railhawks in the US Open Cup.
Bah, the Open Cup…
How the Timbers react to their defeat to Cal FC will be one of the big questions hanging over the side. The sour taste that the defeat left in the mouths of fans has lingered, and both players and fans will be looking for a palate cleansing victory this weekend.
During the break the Timbers have added Danny Mwanga to the side, sending Jorge Perlaza to Philadelphia, and you would expect that Mwanga will be in line for a debut against LA. The developing partnership of Mwanga and Boyd will be an interesting one to watch.
LA Galaxy Team Problems
The Timbers have every right to feel that this is a very winnable match. They aren’t facing the same team that swept to an MLS Cup triumph last year. This LA will have lost Robbie Keane to international duty, are nursing a long injury list and have Mike Magee and Michael Stephens suspended as well as Landon Donovan publicly expressing his ennui. Also is not well at Beckham FC, and Bruce Arena has had to fend off talk of dressing room unrest.
This will force the Galaxy into a number of changes in line-up, with Keane, Buddle and Cristman all likely to miss out. Chad Barrett has started the last couple of matches with Edson Buddle, so it would seem likely he would lead the line against Portland, with the veteran ex-Sounder Pat Noonan also an option, though he has only started one of his nine appearances this season. Jack McBean, only 17, is an option but unlikely to be start. If Juninho makes it, I’d expect a front three of Nakazawa, Barrett and Donovan – assuming he’s fit to go after a raft of international matches – to start, with Beckham behind and Juninho and Sarvas providing the steel in midfield.
Magee’s suspension is a blow for them, but Kyle Nakazawa is an able deputy on the left. Nakazawa will be no stranger to Danny Mwanaga having been team mates at Philadelphia (Mwanga even contributed an assist to a Nakazawa goal last season), and he possesses a threat from set plays, assuming Beckham lets him take any.
The midfield battle
A big key point for LA will be whether Juninho makes it. Juninho is very much the heart of the engine room for the Galaxy, and his absence is usually sorely felt. His box-to-box, all action hustle allows Beckham to play a more advanced central role where his long passing and shooting can be more effective.
Though very much in the twilight of his career, Beckham’s ability to spread the play around will keep the Timbers back line stretched. The flashes of old brilliance are coming at ever-increasing intervals these days, but the Timbers won’t need any reminding about what he can do if given time and space 30 yards from goal.
Having Juninho and Sarvas in the centre also takes away some of the defensive responsibility from the ageing underwear model, which is probably just as well as it’s certainly not his strong suit.
There was a sense that Marcelo Sarvas had been signed from LD Alajuelense to replace his countryman Juninho, before the Brazilian was signed on a third year-long loan deal the following month. Though his playing time has been limited, Sarvas has done reasonably well when given the chance in a Diego Chara-esque role.
Winning this midfield battle will be difficult. The Galaxy have a number of ways they can go – Beckham may play out wide in a 4-4-2, or they can put 3 in the middle in a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 set up. Diego Chara’s ability to disrupt play is important, but whoever is alongside him will have to help out defensively to stop Chara being outnumbered by an onrushing Juninho, or Donovan/Nakazawa coming in from the flanks.
Though his form for LA has been below par Donovan remains a threat, coming in from wide or from deep with late runs, as the Timbers found out to their cost in the last match between the teams when he equalised just before half time. Given his talismanic status with the Galaxy, it’s unsurprising that he’s often given license to roam and this can make him difficult to track. He’ll also drop deep to pick up the ball and can, with a pass and move, set off quick attacking moves, as Colorado found out to their cost this season.
The Timbers’ new-found defensive solidity will be put to the test. They have lost only 2 goals in 4, and kept 3 clean sheets in the past 6, so there’s every reason for a degree of confidence even though Troy Perkins has had come up huge a number of times for the team. Concentration will be key, and it’s vital that Chara gets support in the midfield to help protect the defence.
Hanyer Mosquera has also proven himself to be an astute piece of business. The heart of the defence at this point is certainly Mosquera & A. N. Other. His robust style sets the tone at the back, but his tendency to come out of defence and ball chase can leave gaps – the kind of spaces that a Barrett or Donovan love to find.
In the Galaxy they’ll face a defence that have often shown the same levels of competence as Alexi Lalas does footballing insight. Without Omar Gonzales to marshal the backline, it’s been seat-of-the-pants time for Galaxy fans. Almost every goal can be attributed to an individual mistake, or poor defensive co-ordination.
Goalie Josh Saunders will likely be back for his first start since the 2-1 win against Colorado, having played in the reserve match against the Timbers at the start of the month. The 3 wins LA have this year have all come with Saunders between the sticks, but the goals against average hasn’t changed much – in fact, it’s been marginally lower without Saunders – 1.57 from 1.67, or a goal every ten games or so.
He’s likely to be behind a back four of Dunivant, Lopes, DeLaGarza and Franklin. AJ DeLaGarza formed a good understanding with Gonzales last season, but this year he’s had more partners than Newt Gingrich, and failed to find chemistry with any of them. It’s likely that ex-Chivas man David Junior Lopes will start against Portland, with Lopes and DeLaGarza playing together four times this season – the most of any Galaxy centre-back twosomes.
Something In The Air…
DeLaGarza’s lack of height – he’s only 5’9 – is also a problem that teams have sought to take advantage of. With that in mind, getting good delivery in from the flanks has proven very fruitful for opponents this season.
DeLaGarza isn’t at fault in the centre here, but he does allows his man too much space to get turned and get a cross in, and by putting it between defenders, Sene is given the relatively simple job of nodding the ball home. The lack of a dominant presence at the back such as Gonzales really shows in this area, as no-one takes it upon themselves to attack the ball.
Here Gaul doesn’t close down Rosales, preferring to concentrate on the outside runner, while Donovan shows a lackadaisical attitude to getting back. The cross from deep is well measured to miss out the 6’3 Lopes at the front post, and let Eddie Johnson go up against the smaller DeLaGarza.
The Back Post
Taking “the big man” out of the equation and isolating DeLaGarza or the fullbacks has been a recurring theme for the Galaxy.
Again, it’s a far post cross, and Kamara reads it better than Franklin for a simple header, and even if Franklin didn’t have a brainfart, you’d put money on Kamara beating him to the ball anyway.
Neither first choice full-back for the Galaxy have covered themselves in glory this season. Their attacking play has carried any great potency, and their defensive work has often left a lot to be desired. It’s almost as if it’s not that easy a position to play.
It may be a result of the loss of Gonzales’ influence and organisation, but whatever the cause for the dip in form, both full-backs are playing like players not entirely sure of their jobs and with little confidence in the rest of their defensive team mates. They’ve had real problems defending the channels, and a switched-on attacker can find himself in acres of space with a well-timed forward pass.
The biggest problem the Timbers have faced isn’t shutting out the opposition, it’s putting the ball in the net. They’ve netted only 4 times in the 6 matches since the loss to Galaxy, and half of those were own-goals.
Given the way that Spencer has relentlessly had the Timbers playing – direct from back to front, get it wide – it almost seems like the Galaxy’s weakness at full back, and soft centre, are tailor made for the Timbers to shine.
In a way, given the weakness out wide this is almost the perfect match for the running of Perlaza. His channel running would cause the full-backs headaches, allowing the outside players to get space for the cross. Mwanga though has that ability, combined with a bit more of a physical presence.
With Boyd and Mwanga both likely to start – and 6’1 and 6’2 respectively – the height is there to really challenge the Galaxy defence, providing the delivery is good. Too often the Timbers have been wasteful from wide areas, but have in Sal Zizzo and Kalif Alhassan two guys who can measure a cross. But they also have guys like Mike Chabala who has an almost vampiric fear of a good cross, preferring the hit and hope and fail method.
Though neither Boyd or Mwanga are particularly dominant in the air, both would fancy their chances against the fullbacks or DeLaGarza. Indeed, DeLaGarza’s weakness in the air is something the team and player himself are all too aware of.
There is a tendency for the defence to drop a little deeper to try and limit the effectiveness of long balls forward for big strikers to win flick-ons, but this leaves this exposed to cross balls into dangerous areas as players are able to attack the ball 6 yards from goal.
The temptation may be to pump the ball long and look to win the second ball on knock-downs against DeLaGarza from which could allow the Timbers to get good possession in dangerous areas and keep the attack moving, with the outside midfielders getting forward to offer through balls in the channels between centre and full backs or a pass out wide, but they may find themselves thwarted in this by the presence in those areas of Sarvas and/or Juninho.
Late Game Jitters
Whichever teams holds it’s late game nerve could well come out on top. In April it was the Galaxy who grabbed a couple of late goals for the win and Timbers fans are all to aware of the teams late game performance. There hasn’t been a record as abject as the Timbers in the last 20 minutes since Paris Hilton got delusions of musical adequacy.
While the Galaxy have also suffered late in matches, conceding over half their goals in the final 30 minutes, they also score a lot late on – 60% of the goals they’ve scored this year have come in the final 30.
Both teams have thrown away leads late in matches, so the mental toughness of both XI’s are likely to be tested here. The Galaxy’s poor home form, coupled with fans unrest, could work to the Timbers advantage if they can get themselves ahead and frustrate the hosts and turn the crowd against their heroes.
With Futty on international duty with The Gambia, and Eric Brunner a doubt, it looks like David Horst will partner Hanyer Mosquera at the back. Horst didn’t cover himself in glory at the Cal FC goal, but no-one really came out of that game with credit. Steven Smith is taking his time getting back, and with Wallace picking up a knock it might mean a start for Mike Chabala at left back, with Jewsbury likely to continue at right back.
Given the emphasis I’ve placed on getting good delivery in from wide areas, I am worried about having Chabala’s Comically Catastrophic Crossing Cavalcade down the wing, but I do like him matched against Landon Donovan or David Beckham as I feel his defensive game is much more his strength.
In midfield Diego Chara is a lock, hopefully at central midfield, though you can never be sure. Out wide there’s Sal Zizzo, Kalif Alhassan, Franck Songo’o and Eric Alexander all competing for a spot. Personally, I’d go with Alhassan and Zizzo, but Zizzo’s impact as a sub may be something Spencer wants to hold in reserve until later in the game. I worry that going with Alhassan and Songo’o out wide, given both these guys’ propensity for dribbling inside, could leave our distinctly-not-first-choice full backs exposed to a double team as Franklin and Dunivant are allowed to break forward without worry.
Nagbe will likely start in his midfield/attacker role with Mwanga and Boyd up top, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mwanga start from the bench, with Nagbe partnering Boyd and possibly Alexander in midfield with Chara. I wouldn’t be entirely happy, but not shocked either. Brent Richards did reasonably well when he came on against Cal FC, and has done well for the reserves this year, but I doubt we’ll see Spencer drop any of the “proven” players to give Richards a debut in the back yard of the Champions.
All this being said, I’m feeling pretty confident about Portland’s chances on Sunday. While the Timbers have their own concerns and players missing, there’s a sense that finally the important players are coming back into the team. That’s not the sense you get from LA, who have Keane missing, Donovan’s form slumping and Beckham not getting any younger.
It’s been far too long to make amends after the Open Cup débâcle, and I’m sure the players are itching to prove that result an aberration.
If the Timbers defence can stick to their task and stay focused, then the foundations are there for the win. The LA defence is nothing to be feared. Pressure applied to the flanks with strong, dynamic play from the strikers could kick open the doors. If Real Salt Lake can beat Chivas at the same ground the night before, Spencer’s boys will know a win will put them up into 6th, with the play-offs firmly in sight.