A huge Western Conference match awaits Real Salt Lake later today. The Claret-and-Cobalt will face the enigma of the season, the LA Galaxy. Starting off the season off, hardly anyone thought the oldest team in the league would be able to climb into MLS Cup contention. But, in the twilight of the 2016 season, the Galaxy have climbed to within striking distance of the cup tie with both RSL and the Colorado Rapids for second place in the Western Conference with 43 points. LA, however, has not been without its woes of late, and the only question is can a slumping Galaxy overcome a surging RSL?
The walls are crumbling and there is no one left to man them
Formations can become the hallmark of a good squad, especially under the leadership of Bruce Arena. For years Arena has favored the traditional flat 4-4-2 formation that allows the majority of the play to pass through the center of the pitch – not dissimilar to the style of RSL under Jason Kreis. Like RSL, the Galaxy have adapted to the more heavily favored 4-2-3-1 formation this season. This formation switch has been valuable for LA as they have seemingly pieced together all the right pieces in order to contend for additional league silverware, but recent injuries and losses have left the Galaxy with more questions than answers.
For instance, LA’s preferred central midfield will be completely absent against the Claret and Cobalt. Not only did the club part ways with Nigel De Jong, but an injury has sidelined Steven Gerrard until the third week of September, at the least. Moreover, the visitors will also have gaps left along the back line and in the attacking corps with the absences of Jelle Van Damme and Gyasi Zardes, respectfully – not even factoring in Robbie Keane who is on international duty with Ireland.
The LA Galaxy have been so gutted in fact that they switched back to the historic flat 4-4-2 against the Columbus Crew this past weekend. This meant that the Southern California club had to sacrifice an out-and-out attacker for midfield presence. Moreover, without Gerrard and De Jong, the secondary midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Sebastian Lletget were relied upon to keep the club’s tempo.
While none of these formation or personnel changes should hamper such a historically successful squad, the combination has begun to take a toll on the Galaxy winning only a single match since the beginning of August (1-3-3 record).
Keys to the Match
Despite their recent changes, the Galaxy are very much squad with an identity. Just as with any squad under the tutelage of Arena, LA have become accustom to playing a certain style of soccer and it has followed them.
In 2016, the Galaxy style of play can be summed up with:
· Favors attacking down the flanks and crosses often,
· Attempts short passes and plays to retain possession of the ball,
· Attempts to beat the offside trap,
· And attempts a large number of long shots.
With these traits apparent, there are several keys to the match in order for RSL to counter-act the Galaxy:
1. Make sure that RSL’s wingers do not shirk their defensive responsibility. Yes, it is Joao Plata and Juan Manuel Martinez’s job to score goals, but they also need to put in a defensive shift, linking up with the fullbacks. Their secondary duty should be stopping LA Galaxy crosses, which average 8 per match.
2. Put Galaxy players in possession under pressure. So LA likes to retain possession, and when they do not have it they compress the midfield. By winning the ball and possessing it, RSL can make LA chase the match instead of having it the other way around.
3. The backline has to be in sync. With the Galaxy attackers pushing up and attempting to beat the offside trap, the RSL backline has to make sure they are inline and when not able to cover each other to make sure LA’s attackers don’t get too many break-away chances.
4. Close down space. Closing down space in the 18-yard box is key, but playing against a team that takes a large number of long shots, closing down space anywhere in your defensive third will be key. If RSL is to be successful, they must make sure that the Galaxy does not have any space to get a shot-off.
The Claret-and-Cobalt have a lot going for them coming into this key match-up. Not only are RSL in post-season form already, but they have won their last three consecutive matches. In addition, Rio Tinto remains a fortress – 8-0-5 home record for RSL in 2016. On the same note, Real has a four-match undefeated streak at the RioT when facing the Galaxy, winning 3-0 last September 19.
So, even against a strong Western Conference opponent, RSL has a good chance to make this match a six point affair and continue their Supporters’ Shield push.