By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 2, 2019) US Soccer Players - With one match left to go in the 2019 regular season, the LA Galaxy has a playoff berth secure for the first since 2016. Much has changed across the league since then. LAFC and Atlanta United had yet to debut. The league was at 20 teams. Toronto FC and Seattle hadn't gotten to an MLS Cup before 2016, let alone win one. The MLS Best XI that year featured Jelle Van Damme and Giovani Dos Santos.
That year also marked the end of an era in LA. Bruce Arena took the Galaxy to its eighth consecutive playoff appearance. Perhaps the Galaxy fans were spoiled and the rest of the league fearful of the Arena-led Galaxy during that span. The Galaxy was always a tough draw, always a team that no one wanted to face come playoff time.
Like the rest of the ever-changing MLS, that too is no more. Arena is also back in the playoffs, but it's with the New England Revolution. The Galaxy is on its fourth coach since Arena left. While first-year coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto took the Galaxy back to the postseason, it is anyone's guess what the team will look like come playoff time.
Whatever it is, the Galaxy is no longer the feared team come postseason. Sure, this will be a tough draw no matter what, but the mystique the team carried for nearly a decade is no longer there. The stadium is the same, albeit with some minor changes. The uniform, crest, and colors haven't changed too much, if at all. However, this is not the same Galaxy team that won three MLS Cup titles under Arena and reached the final another time.
Even though 2016 was not that long ago, this team has no link to the past. There is no key player to rally around who was part of previous championship teams. There is no Landon Donovan. No David Beckham. No Robbie Keane.
This team's leader and go-to player is a fine talent but is also the greatest ego this league has ever known. The coach is one whose previous tenure ended in a catastrophic failure and is under a general manager who has not been part of the MLS playoffs in more than a decade. While the foundation is set for the Galaxy to have a successful run for several years, this league is much different and not intimidated by the Galaxy as it was at the start of the decade. This team has no identity. By contrast, Arena's teams had trademarks.
Under Arena, Galaxy teams had a strong defense and clutch goal scoring as big plays from big players in big moments. This team will lose to the likes of Vancouver at home when trying to fight for a better playoff position. This team is almost anti-Arena. They lose at home and gives up goals. Arena's teams did not do much of either.
Consider that the Galaxy finished with an 11-5-1 home record this season. The last game was perhaps the most frustrating as the Galaxy never led and ultimately gave the game away to the Whitecaps in second-half stoppage time and lost 4-3. The 11 wins are solid, sure, but the five losses are troubling. Arena's Galaxy teams had two, one, two and one home loss in his final four seasons in charge. In his last 63 home games in charge, Arena's Galaxy teams lost as many home games as the Galaxy did this season.
Aside from the 2012 season, which was a bit of an anomaly, the Galaxy lost 14 home games under Arena. In 2012, the Galaxy lost six. The team overcame some early-season injuries and wound up winning MLS Cup for the second year in a row. Experience and stability helped that team overcome the early-season hole the team dug for itself. This team has no such leader to count on. No player has been through the MLS playoff battles before, at least not one who can put the team on his back and carry his teammates through during tough stretches.
Another trademark from days gone by was a tough defense. The Galaxy had one of the league's toughest under Arena. Twice his teams held opponents under 30 combined goals during an entire season in 2010 and 2011. Only twice did the Galaxy surrender more than 40 goals in one season, and one of those years was 2012. The Galaxy allowed 55 goals this season with one game left to play.
Tough defenses though are not just something the Galaxy has relied on in the past. Since 2009, only three MLS Cup winners have allowed more than 40 goals in one season. The 2012 LA Galaxy (47 goals allowed), 2016 Seattle Sounders (43), and 2018 Atlanta United (44). Teams that have protected their home grounds and limited opponents from scoring have had the most success. No surprise there, but this Galaxy team does neither. Making the playoffs is an accomplishment, but it's also the ceiling.
Now, the Galaxy will score goals. Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads the team with 29 goals, which would have been the new record had Josef Martinez and now Carlos Vela scored more. Still, it is the third-highest total in league history. He could surpass the 30-goal mark in Houston this weekend. The Galaxy has not been shutout since August 3 and scored 18 goals in September, a figure opposing defense would fear.
Still, the Galaxy has won only four games since July 19 and is 1-6-1 in its last eight road games. The Galaxy allowed 14 goals in September and is desperately leaking goals. The team's defense has grown more porous as the season has gone on. The team has allowed 31 goals of its 55 goals in July and later, which means the defense is regressing and not improving. To expect the defense to flip a switch and play lights-out defense in October is asking too much.
Arena had great success with the Galaxy, but the shadow he cast was long. Too long for this year's team to escape.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com