Time is a bitch, or maybe Bruce Arena is. I wrote a draft of this article back in January around Superdraft time. Since then, pre-season began and the Galaxy used a completely different shape than we'd expected, requiring a complete re-write to better reflect the reality of last year's champs in 2015. I've chosen to keep my earlier notes intact, the better to trace how an unexpected player emerging can change a team's shape considerably.
The Fire open on the road at the LA Galaxy on Friday, March 6; kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. CST. So without further delay, let's analyze what the Fire - and we Fire fans - are likely to see come Friday.
LA Galaxy 2014 Formation: A simple, classic 4-4-2
The Galaxy played the classic 4-4-2 at the end of the season and throughout the post-season in 2014. This was their best alignment with their most productive players. Other formations with other players were always less successful and required LA to chase the game - and this resulted in Keane and Zardes disappearing for long stretches of those matches.
Since the end of the 2014 Season, the Galaxy have traded Sarvas to Colorado, while Landon Donovan famously retired, leaving two gaping holes in that midfield. For the 2015 season, the two biggest questions for Coach Arena and the Galaxy are:
- Who plays left midfield since LD retired?
- Does Coach Arena start the season with one formation - like this carry-over from 2014 - and then switch to a different formation once Gerrard arrives in July OR does Coach Arena start the season in a new formation from the beginning with Juninho in the Gerrard role - and then in July rotate Gerrard into his role and move Juninho into his "real" role?
Let’s answer the second question first - I think that Coach Arena makes the change to the new formation from pre-season onward. I’m making this choice because I’m betting that the new formation is 4-2-3-1 w/ Gerrard in the center of the '3' as an attacking mid.
Oh well, it sounded logical in January. However, throughout the preseason, LA has played with two forwards and rotated both outside and inside midfielders to see them in various combinations. As I reflected on my first thoughts from January, it struck me that in 2014 whenever the Galaxy played with a single striker - even with Keane as the '1' - they had no flow and had trouble establishing ball control, and therefore control of the game tempo. Coach Arena’s teams are all about ball control - all about forcing the opponent to play LA’s game. More on that later. Read the following analysis and see if you think it has merit for LA to change to the 4-2-3-1 in July when Gerrard finally shows up. As to what the Galaxy are actually doing this year ... I'll get to that.
Actually, this formation answers both questions. Moving to a 4-2-3-1 allows for LA to play their first-best starting XI when all are healthy from April onward. Until Gerrard arrives in July, LA uses Husidic in his place at AM - both to train the team using that formation against MLS teams, and to train Husidic in that role for when Gerrard is injured or in need of rest. When Gerrard arrives in July, there will be an immediate upgrade in the attacking midfield spot which would only take one or two weeks - one or at most two MLS games - to be fully up to speed.
The LA Galaxy 4-2-3-1 - or not ...
Changing to a 4-2-3-1 also "replaces" LD w/o actually trying to slot a new player into the 2014 formation. That 4-4-2 required one outside mid - usually Donovan - to stretch the opponent both wide and deep in order to make space for Keane and the central midfielders. Unless LA goes looking (i.e., $$$$$) for an LD-class player they would need to play either Juninho or Walker on one wing or another since LA's not about to put Gerrard in that role. Neither are suited for playing outside for 90+ minutes, but playing another wide player puts one of them on the bench. Or that was what I thought in January.
It looks as though the Galaxy won’t need to look for a big-money left mid - they may have found a suitable replacement in-house, from their academy system and the development pipeline of Galaxy II - Bradford Jamieson IV, who has been tearing it up during preseason. It also looks like there is very little chance that, despite all of the logic pointing to a 4-2-3-1, LA will be playing that formation any time soon.
Back to the 4-4-2
So, how do the Galaxy start against the Fire on Friday? Not in the 4-2-3-1 - no way. On Friday I expect the Galaxy to continue using the formation with which Coach Arena has been very successful, the 4-4-2.
Also, since this is the first game of the season, I expect that there will be at least two subs around the 70-80 minute mark for fitness if not for injury or game situation. My best guesses: Defensively - Dunivant for Leonardo; Midfield - Villarreal for Jamieson; Forward - Gordon for Zardes. Hopefully, the Fire defense will continue to stay compact and focused for 90+ minutes as they have shown throughout the pre-season.