By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (May 31, 2017) US Soccer Players – Transitions can be tough on soccer clubs. Swapping out coaches and players en masse, as the LA Galaxy did following the 2016 season, can lead to a difficult transitional period. Transitions can also work in a team’s favor.
Not quite through with their transitional phase from the Bruce Arena era to the Curt Onalfo one, the Galaxy has begun transitioning from a lifeless, non-competitive side to a confident, productive contender.
With the first three months of its season complete, the Galaxy sits in a fairly solid position. Trending upward, the Galaxy is in the sixth and final playoff spot on the strength of a 5-5-2 record. The Galaxy’s attack has produced a respectable 19 goals in 12 games, a figure surpassed by only two Western Conference sides.
May saw the Galaxy rise from the abyss into playoff contention. The Galaxy entered the month with a 2-5-1 record and a desire for change. Anything to inject some life into a moribund team.
Now, the Galaxy is probably not as good as its 3-0-1 month of May was but certainly is better than the first two months of the season. Somewhere in between is the Galaxy’s equilibrium. The club is probably not as good as conference leaders Sporting KC or FC Dallas but certainly better than Real Salt Lake and Colorado.
To maintain its strong level of play, Onalfo may need to make some tough managerial decisions. The Galaxy’s rise has coincided with what seemed to have been a worrisome injury at the time. The Galaxy lost Jermaine Jones midway through the Galaxy’s May 6 match against Chicago. Without him, the Galaxy scored twice and turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 draw. The Galaxy has outscored its opponents 9-4 in three matches since then for a total aggregate Jones-less score of 11-4.
Is Jones a quality player? Sure. When healthy, Jones is a fixture on the USMNT. Jones isn’t on the current US roster, likely because of the knee issue. Jones was an instrumental part of Colorado in 2016 and New England for two seasons before that. All three of those seasons ended in playoff appearances for those respective Jones-led sides. Without Jones, New England failed to reach the postseason a year ago while Colorado has plummeted to the bottom of the table after a stellar showing last season.
Now the opposite is happening as the Galaxy has taken off and climbed the table without the club’s big off season acquisition. Joao Pedro, the much-maligned midfield signing, has come into his own without Jones by his side. Pedro scored his first MLS goal in the Galaxy’s 4-2 win over San Jose on the weekend and is showing the skills that had Galaxy brass feeling excited about his potential. Romain Alessandrini has been steady all season but without Jones he has been an even greater part of the attack, with two goals and four assists since Jones left injured against Chicago.
Onalfo also needs to figure out Gyasi Zardes’s role. Alongside Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, Zardes was a key part of the Galaxy attach. He scored 16 goals in 2014. Without support and the confidence that comes with it, that seems a long way off. Zardes has scored just 12 goals in 56 games since knocking 16 in 32 games just three seasons ago.
What Onalfo does with that information is the question. Onalfo was able to rejuvenate another key player. Onalfo substituted out key defender Jelle Van Damme after just 33 minutes against Chicago, an embarrassing situation for the player to have been in. Van Damme though did not sulk or blame the coach. Instead, Van Damme changed his approach and attitude and his production has shot back to the level it was a year ago. Van Damme was his fiery self against San Jose, mixing it up several times with San Jose players, showing the kind of passion and intensity necessary from a captain.
Onalfo faced a similar situation with another key player as Gio Dos Santos was a complete non-factor for the first two months of the season. Now, Dos Santos’s star is shining brightly once more. He has scored in each of the last four games and nabbed the equalizer against Chicago on May 6. All told, he had five goals and an assist in May and has been a steady and strong performer since then.
As is necessary for teams to pull out of a slump, it has been the stars who have gotten the Galaxy out of the doldrums. Alessandrini, Dos Santos and Van Damme have led the Galaxy’s turnaround and Onalfo has pulled the right strings to ensure that happens. A few more tugs here and there could help the Galaxy continue its strong play in June and through the summer.
The Galaxy still need work to take the next step into title contention. Figuring out how to use Zardes is key, especially with Dos Santos’s likely absences due to Mexican national team duty. The defense must be stingier than it has been. For all of the progress May brought, the Galaxy’s defense has yielded 19 goals overall and has just two shutouts this season. Brian Rowe needs to be more consistent in goal.
However, there is more hope now than there was a month ago. Onalfo’s vision and the faith and expectations set forth by the Galaxy front office has not fully materialized but is now visible. Hope and promise do not win championships but the Galaxy’s “Race to Seis” hopes are now seemingly based on more than the present than the past.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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