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Know Your Enemy: LA Galaxy - Part Two – Game Film Review and Points of Interest

The second half of the latest installment of the Know Your Enemy series, previewing TFC's upcoming match against the LA Galaxy in California, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses

Yeah, this one looks tough, what with Juninho, Husidic, Zardes, Donovan, Keane, and Sarvas in attack, but...
Yeah, this one looks tough, what with Juninho, Husidic, Zardes, Donovan, Keane, and Sarvas in attack, but...
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Part One, focusing on their lineup and form, was posted yesterday

The Tactics

Toronto will definitely have their hands full in dealing with the oft-sublime Galaxy attack. Of concern is that since their last lost – a run of nine matches – LA has outscored their opponents 28-8, winning seven games throughout the stretch.

The primary threat is Robbie Keane, who leads the side with seventeen goals and fourteen assists. His movement and work-rate is fantastic, his interplay within the lop-sided trident of himself, Landon Donovan, and Gyasi Zardes is unstoppable, and, when given the space (or making it himself) his finishing has been clinical, as the opener against New York on the weekend bears witness:


As gorgeous a finish – and move to push past Roy Miller – it was, worried Toronto fans should take note of just how terrible the Red Bull defending was; they all collapse on Donovan, who is rather isolated, no one bothering to track the late run of Keane, making that simple isolation ball to the right an option for Donovan, and the rest is history.

Identifying runners and tracking them, getting in the way before the pass comes is crucial to shutting down LA. Don’t let them work together, they will out-smart MLS defenses, but if that triangle is prevented from functioning, they will have to go it alone – not that they are not capable of that.

A further example of such interplay that forces defenders to chase and trade off runners, which is problematic, came from later that same match. Zardes chases down a ball at the right end-line, playing back to Stefan Ishizaki before curling his run to receive a return ball. Dax McCarty presses him for a bit, but then abandons his duties, trudging inexplicably towards the centre.

Zardes plays a neat one-two with Donovan to break in down the right-side of the area, finishing low across a helpless Luis Robles:


New York had plenty of bodies back, but no one took the responsibility of providing actual coverage – Jamison Olave was the only defender really paying attention. If McCarty had tucked in after passing off Zardes, rather than abandoning, he would have been in position to challenge the return pass. If Tim Cahill had not been a pylon in the middle, perhaps McCarty would not have ditched the run. And how is Donovan allowed to step into space like that inside the opponent’s box?

Defending is equal parts working as a unit and personal responsibility. The Galaxy play on disrupting that balance and New York was ripe for the picking. If Toronto is to do any better the defenders must be on their toes, communicate, and not let numeric superiority cloud their sense of threat.

TFC did rather well last weekend in prevent Portland from slicing through the middle, so there are some positives to take into the game; still Saturday will require a lot of work.

Zardes has really come into his own in this, his second, season, racking up sixteen goals and a pair of assists, to set a new single-season goal-scoring mark for homegrown players.

As if all that was not enough, timely runs from other midfielders – be it Marcelo Sarvas, Stefan Ishizaki, Juninho, or in this case, Baggio Husidic, will exploit any gaps that the movement of the top three create:


The Colorado full-back, Chris Klute, lingers near Donovan – not a bad idea, and the centre-back, Thomas Piermayr, runs with Zardes – again, had to be done, leaving that space for Husidic to receive the ball and side foot into the bottom corner.

That is why when shutting down LA, it is important that the defensive midfielders remain in position, to pick up those runners and close down those gaps that will eventually open.

Contrast where Colorado’s Nick LaBrocca is – pushing up high to pressure Omar Gonzalez – with where Cahill and McCarty were on the previous goal; it is too easy to pass through gaps without cover, allowing the five Galaxy attackers to outnumber the four-man Colorado back-line, thereby stretching them porous.

Added to that cadre of threats was the acquisition and aerial presence of one Alan Gordon. When Bruce Arena assessed his side in the offseason, the one shortcoming he sought to address was the lack of a viable plan B.

Bringing in Samuel and Rob Friend was intended to provide the proverbial target-forward and a little more height in both boxes to help the team make use of set-pieces and cause havoc when necessary.

Gordon, brought in only as the roster freeze approached, has been the perfect foil, collecting four goals and an assist in his ten appearances, including this winner against Dallas:


If LA can’t go through the opponent, Gordon allows them a chance to go over – and with the Galaxy skill set, finding space out wide and picking out the very alert Gordon in the area is like shooting fish in a barrel. Note how easily Keane shimmies past Adam Moffat to get in the above cross.

And should Toronto manage to keep all of those run-of-play threats under control, LA can always make use of set-pieces, with Gonzalez the obvious target. The hulking defender has four goals this season, all coming in the last two months, getting a strong boot on this effort against DC and winning a towering header against San Jose:


Donovan barely gets a mention in the above concerns, but he is an ever-present threat, the glue that binds the Galaxy attack, stretching up from his left midfield position, unbalancing defenses and generally making himself a nuisance to the opposition.

It will be very weird to not see him in the Galaxy lineup next season.

Exploitation

While it may seem an impossible task, LA can be exploited at the back. There is not a lot of height in their starting lineup – Gonzalez being the obvious exception – which leaves them open to aerial threats; Gonzalez can only cover so much territory.

Dallas provides an excellent example of how a forward that drifts wide, thereby avoiding Gonzo space, can take advantage of height disparity – Blas Perez rising high to meet a Jair Benitez cross to the back-post, first getting position on Dan Gargan and then rising over the defender to guide his header into the top corner:


That back-side vulnerability, where the full-back is isolated away from the defensive unit, was on display against San Jose as well, where Chris Wondolowski, the one man defenders should keep tabs on at all times, manages to find himself unmarked at the back-post, ghosting off the shoulders of both Robbie Rogers and Zardes to get on the end of a Jordan Stewart ball:


Toronto needs to make use of that sort of play, something they did, albeit unsuccessfully, against Portland, with Dominic Oduro and Dan Lovitz working the ball in from one side and looking to expose space for the back-side run of Gilberto. He nearly had a pair against the Timbers from very similar moves and he has the height and leaping ability to beat the LA full-backs in the air.

With so much of their focus going forward, LA are susceptible to turnovers and quick counterattacks, as Montreal displayed twice in their recent meeting. When forcing the Galaxy defenders to turn and face their own goal, speed, positioning, and threat awareness become essential, none of which are particular strong points – how Marco Di Vaio is allowed to make that back-to-near run without Leonardo getting ball or goal side is a mystery:


Their second of the night further emphasizes how when forced on their heels, LA can be found inadequate, Leonardo again, allowing Ignacio Piatti the space to pause his run, collect the pass, and step around a weak challenge to finish:


Note how Gargan dives in at the centre-circle, a last-ditch attempt to snuff the counter there, a symbol of how they do not want to get into foot races.

And then, as with the Perez goal, LA’s lack of size can be taken advantage of on set-pieces – a tool that TFC has excelled at in recent weeks. Columbus’ Giancarlo Gonzalez added a fourth to the Crew’s demolition of the Galaxy late with this simple header from a Federico Higuain corner kick, rising up over Husidic far too easily:


Yes, LA are one of the best teams in the league, and yes, they are a formidable opponent. But this is soccer, and any team can beat any other team on the day, especially in MLS.

Points of Interest

The two teams have met twelve times in MLS play, LA winning four, Toronto two, and drawing the other six.

In Los Angeles, the Galaxy have won three, Toronto one, and two have ended in draws – TFC’s only win coming back in 2008, a 2-3 win with Danny Dichio, Jarrod Smith, and Jeff Cunningham getting goals to the good and Landon Donovan registering the Galaxy brace.

Last season’s meeting in Toronto ended all-square, Mike Magee opened the scoring only for Robert Earnshaw and Jonathan Osorio to give TFC the lead, before Jose Villarreal pounced in stoppage-time to equalize for a 2-2 draw.

LA are unbeaten in the last eight meetings between the clubs, five of which have been drawn, with Toronto’s last win coming back in 2008, when Julius James and Jeff Cunningham scored either side of half-time in a 2-0 TFC win at the Exhibition Grounds. Interestingly, a veteran defender by the name of Greg Vanney was in the LA lineup that afternoon.

The Galaxy won the most recent meeting in Carson by a 4-2 score-line, braces from Juninho and Robbie Keane overpowering a pair from Luis Silva. TFC had picked up draws in their previous two trips to California.

LA has been releasing limited edition posters for their matches this season, some of which have been rather awesome, though the one for Toronto is a little weak.

It will be very interesting to see what TFC has in store for Landon Donovan as his retirement tour nears its end – easy money is on a canoe, or maybe a vat of maple syrup; a trip on the Maid of the Mist, perhaps?

Luca Knows Heart