The MLS Cup Hangover
Posted on May 11, 2012 4:36 pm
In a motel somewhere in Carson, Landon Donovan wakes up. An attempt at opening his eyes is foiled by a jabbing ray of sunlight. His head is pounding in a rhythm that sounds a bit like the riff from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. He squints an eye open once more and looks to his left.
“Not again…..” he groans under his breath. Next to him a girl sleeps in an Everton Jersey, her face painted blue and white. On the other side of her, a haggard Simon Borg snores and drools.
LD tries to collect his thoughts. The last thing he remembers is holding aloft the MLS Cup. Then Champagne. Something about being back in Liverpool. The rest is just a blur.
Confused, his eyes fall on the cheap clock-radio on his nightstand. It’s May 2012.
The silence in the room is broken by a retching sound. A disheveled David Beckham shuffles slowly out of the bathroom. In one hand he holds a half-finished smoothie. In the other he holds a napkin with a phone number scrawled on it.
“Who’s John?” he asks vacantly to nobody in particular.
On a stained couch is slumped Omar Gonzales.
“What did I drink last night?”, he exclaims “Even my ACL feels like it’s hung-over”.
Just when the scene seems like it can’t get any more pathetic, the group are alerted to a weeping from the corner. There on the floor, the normally stone-faced Bruce Arena sits. Fresh tears glisten on his craggy cheeks. A trembling hand clutches some official-looking MLS documents.
“I don’t understand… How long have we been drunk?”, he pleads, eyes wide and desperate looking “ None of this makes sense…. According to these records, I’ve signed Andrew Boyens and David Junior Lopes…”
So here we are, two months since the Los Angeles Galaxy had its first competitive game of 2012. The debate ahead of that game was not about whether this team would make the playoffs or be successful, but about how successful and whether this league had ever seen a stronger line-up.
Not only had the Designated Player trio of Beckham, Donovan and Keane remained intact, the club had also seen the unexpected returns of the important Juninho and 2010 leading scorer, Edson Buddle.
It had been a stellar off-season. Then they started playing.
Some of our fans were concerned when pre-season victories were few and far between. Then the optimists among us pointed out that this mirrored last seasons winless pre-season.
The only real concern was the absence of the MLS defender of the year, Omar Gonzales, whose off-season loan to Nuremburg was cut painfully short (literally) when potential future US teammate Timmy Chandler injured him in his first training session. The injury was to his ACL. He would be out for much of the MLS season. But as important as he was, surely the stingy LA defence and all-star cast could get by without him? Sure they could…
And so came the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarter Final against Toronto FC. On the CONCACAF website, the Galaxy fixture list and various other formal publications, this was listed as football match. To those populating the scattered enclaves where interest in this tournament actually exists, this was more of a north-of-the-border errand for LA’s budding ‘Superclub’.
Then it happened: Toronto scored. Twice. Not to worry though – a spirited fight-back saw LA cross out the deficit and bag two away goals. As long as they didn’t lose at the HDC, where they had remained unbeaten throughout the 2011 MLS season, they’d be in the semis.
Now I’ve been a big supporter of Bruce. I’ve oft heaped praise on his cleaning-up of the “dirty protest” of a team that Ruud Gullit, Alexi Lalas and Terry Byrnes left in 2008. He didn’t so much polish a turd as perform alchemy on it, producing a drilled, focused, winning team in the space of months.
It cannot be ignored however, that Bruce is enamoured with players at the crustier end of their careers. He frequently signs players most people would track down on ancestry.com. His team selection for the MLS opener against Real Salt Lake, a mere three days after their unexpectedly eventful trip to Canada and a mere four before they entertained Toronto at home, served to further suggest that Bruce underestimates the impact of time and physical strain in relation to the human body.
To be fair, the LA roster is looking a bit younger these days, what with the retirements of Frankie Hejduk, Greg Berhalter, Jovan Kirovski and Methuselah. However, even the young players were going to be hard-pressed to perform to capacity three days after a long journey, especially as they weren’t up to anything like mid-season fitness.
Real Salt Lake, one of the best teams in the league, are a handful when you have a full, fresh starting line-up. For some reason, Bruce decided that he ought to field pretty much the same team as the one that had played in Toronto. Subsequent events have since rendered any positives LA could have gleaned from this 3-1 defeat redundant. They’d actually played some decent possession football and created chances. They even got a little unlucky after a couple of calls went against them en route to RSL’s second goal. No matter. This was LA Galaxy and they had now played two games without a win.
Next up, the formality of hosting Toronto in the CCL, where another poor refereeing decision saw an exquisite Mike Magee chip and 1-0 lead ruled out for offside. In the end Toronto, a team which has subsequently set a new MLS record for consecutive losses, walked away with a 2-1 victory, a 4-3 aggregate win and a place in the semi-finals, where they would be ultimately be crushed by Santos Laguna.
After that, we finally saw victory against DC United, followed by a dire loss against New England, an expected loss away to a rampant Sporting KC which saw Beckham ruled out by an acute interest in vineyards, a second victory against Portland, another away to Colorado, and a close thing against Dallas.
Things looked to be improving a little. Three games without defeat and David Junior Lopes arriving to provide some much-needed physicality to the backline. Sadly, while that much-needed physicality was indeed welcomed and did help, the player was showing a tendency to make mistakes of a magnitude not seen since Hans Backe uttered the immortal words “The CONCACAF Gold what?”.
So the defence still wasn’t inspiring confidence and the finishing was still a little off, but things were at least getting results.
Then came the Galaxy’s second spell of three-games-in-a-week. Bruce, having learned his lesson from the Toronto/RSL/Toronto series, decided that there would be no burning his squad out this time. Having played a full team against FC Dallas – a game that LA should have won, but just about drew – he decided to go to Western Conference rival Seattle, with a line-up consisting of LD, Bryan Jordan and a few of Bruce’s old Lacrosse buddies from Virginia.
Seattle won without much difficulty, but Keane and Beckham had been spared the plastic turf and all would be fresh and hungry for the injury-decimated New York Red Bulls at the weekend. And hungry they were. So hungry in fact, that the Red Bulls’ solitary goal came very much against the run of play. Sadly, LA’s goal didn’t come at all.
It’s two months since we got started and the Galaxy are mired in one heck of a Championship Hangover. Of the LA faithful, even the level-headed, even-tempered optimists have their fingers dangling tentatively over the panic button. The reactionaries have been pounding the button for approximately six weeks.
Some of this latter bunch have been disgruntled at Arena for a while. It’s not enough that he’s delivered two Supporter’s Shields, had LA top of the Western Conference for three seasons and delivered an MLS Cup. They want us to play sexy football en route. There is a belief in some quarters that an uber-dominant, Real Madrid type outfit can actually exist in a parity-ruled entity like MLS. Furthermore those same peeps believe LA should be that team.
Not that I’m defending Bruce… well not much anyway. I’ve often locked horns with his detractors. Indeed, while a lot of 2009 and 2010 was all about defending, Route 1 football and grinding out results, 2011 was a step up. While the ball may have been hoofed on occasion, the team had developed into a possession-based outfit. Of course, not in the tiki-taka, Barcelona sense of the term. It still didn’t set the pulse racing. It was still built on a defensive foundation. There was still a lot of grinding out of results. However, it didn’t deserve the “Bunkering Bruce Ball” stigma that the team has been saddled with.
Currently though, Bruce Arena has made his share of mistakes. The biggest was trying to field his best XI in that MLS opener and Toronto FC games. It not only threw away a place in a competition that seen LA emerge from a very tough group stage, it immediately placed question marks and pressure over the team.
Furthermore, as goal after goal was conceded, you could see the confidence drain from the players.
Then there was a failure to take Omar’s injury seriously enough. In hindsight, none of us expected the defence to become a complete liability in his absence – it is after all, 4/5 of the backline that won the title. However, it was a worry. Bruce’s answer thus far has been MLS squad player, Andrew Boyens (quickly dropped as a bust), rookie Tommy Meyer (who is doing okay considering, but being severely punished for his rookie mistakes) and technically competent, but fatally flawed journeyman, David Junior Lopes.
It’s not all a complete disaster though, even if it may feel like it. The system itself isn’t failing. The vast majority of goals conceded, have come from avoidable defensive errors or slack marking. While the attack may not be tearing defenses to shreds, most games have seen sufficient goal-scoring opportunities created.
I also cannot overstate how close the various roster restrictions and parity rules makes this league. You may have your in-form and off-form clubs who at various times may be ominous or easy pickings over a closed period, but there are few games where anything less than three points is a major underachievement. Of LA’s six losses this season, a healthy, focused backline and/or an in-form striker could easily have reversed the results against Toronto, RSL and New York. Meanwhile, the Seattle Sounders game was all but gifted via a line-up that was virtually second-string and included a career debut for Brian Gaul.
The question is, what can be done?
The starting point must be team focus.
We need to get players’ minds off recent form or needing a run. Right now, a single conceded goal comes with the weight of the disappointment that has become synonymous with the season so far. It might be better to just treat each game as a “cup final”.
Players must remember their roles and duties.
Franklin is frequently bombing up-field at bad times. Donovan and Magee are neglecting their defensive responsibilities. Juninho is routinely failing to track back or block passing lanes – something that was vital to this team last season. Beckham’s urge to play the hero causes him to run out of position and gamble on far too many hollywood passes.
The defence needs to be fixed. I’ll stick my neck out and say that AJ and Meyer are the best of a bad bunch. There’s also benefit to playing Meyer, because he’s learning and there’s a greater chance of him improving on his performances than with Lopes or Boyens.
The more obvious answer is the impending return of Leonardo. He has his own flaws and will need time to get match fit, but he’s a good defender and the best we have in Gonzo’s absence.
Finally, the big question is over Bruce Arena. Does he need to go?
I would say not yet. He deserves some patience due to what he’s achieved. Our ills are also clear and fixable. However, he is facing his biggest test as Galaxy GM & coach. If he can’t turn it around soon, a fresh perspective may be in order.