With seven points separating the Seattle Sounders from the Western Conference red line a packed July could see the team fall out of the playoff picture, or make a tiny surge to provide hope for the second half of the season. The next team to stand in the way are the LA Galaxy, who are without the suspended Nigel de Jong.
Seattle is 3-1-2 +1 in their last six MLS regular season and playoff games hosting the Galaxy.
Sean from LAG Confidential answers Three Questions.
SaH: The Galaxy have one of the more extreme home/road splits. Why do they struggle away from StubHub Center?
LAGC: This is the million dollar question that has plagued the Galaxy for a few years now and it's really hard to pin down exactly why. My own theory is that the Galaxy shifted in attacking style around 2013 from an offensively conservative counter attacking team to an aggressively proactive attacking style designed to overwhelm teams, and, when you look at home and away dynamics in soccer across the board, this is a lot harder to implement on the road, which is why I think this is a team that regularly wins at home by 3 goals but lose on the road by one. That said, they are finding a way to tie more games on the road this year, which I think is a testament to their improved back-line.
SaH: Arena seems to have figured the attacking four out. What's been the key to getting the offense flowing?
LAGC: I'm not overly convinced he has, yet, as our best offensive player is Robbie Keane and yet our two best games of the season came when running a Robbie Keane-less 4-4-2 in Houston and at home to RSL which was especially effective at attacking through zone 14.
When it comes to all 3 designated players + Gyasi Zardes being on the field at the same time, however, the Galaxy haven't been nearly as dynamic. For awhile, the Galaxy 4-4-2 with Keane and Gio up top and Zardes on the wing had mixed results but was generally offensively weak but defensively strong. The 4-3-3 with Gio, Keane and Zardes up top and De Jong, Magee and Gerrard in the middle was mostly poor going forward and downright atrocious defensively as it's generally not good practice to play a 3 man midfield of guys over 30 when your forwards aren't defending. The new scheme seems to be a 4231 with De Jong and Larentowicz sitting behind Gerrard at CAM, flanked on either side by Gio and Zardes with Keane up top, but we've only seen it with full personnel once and will be unable to play it in Seattle because De Jong went and did a De Jong thing and got a red for his troubles. While the current system certainly seems to get Gio and Gerrard into the attack, it also seems to isolate Keane, as Zardes, no matter how much he pinches in, isn't going to be there enough to lead the line to a point where Keane can drop back onto the ball at the levels we are used to seeing when he plays with a forward partner.
SaH: Without Nigel de Jong enforcing as a defensive mid, what does LA do to lighten pressure on the backline.
LAGC: What I would do is, instead of worrying about a like for like replacement, for which there is none, play a system designed to attack through zone 14 rather than the wings, and simply trust that the Galaxy's attacking talent, when working together in dangerous spaces, should be able to outscore the Sounders offense. For me, that would mean playing a 4-4-2 with Baggio Husidic and Steven Gerrard playing as a double pivot with Dos Santos and Lletget on either side. Zardes would occupy defenders up top, creating a pocket of space for Keane to drop into, Gerrard to surge into and Gio to make inverted runs into. In a nutshell, it's the 2014 Galaxy system which Bruce finally settled on that year, ironically enough, in Seattle.
What Bruce will do, however, is anyone's guess. I have long since given up on trying to penetrate that fortress of a mind, but here are some options. We've seen Husidic and Gerrard and Magee and Gerrard as double pivots this year, which would open a space to get Lletget back into the lineup on the wing. He may go Boateng over Lletget if he feels he needs pace. But there I go again, attempting to explain possible reasoning for Bruce Arena's actions. The truth is, whatever he puts out there, he puts out there, and the only person who will really know the thinking behind it will be Bruce Arena.
Projected lineup: 4231
Rowe, Cole, Van Damme, Steres, DeLaGarza, Larentowicz, Husidic, Dos Santos, Gerrard, Zardes, Keane
LAGC: Clint Dempsey was one of the best forwards in the league last year and was probably one of the best forwards in the recent Copa America Centenario, and yet, according to whoscored, he's racked up a grand total of 90 minutes as a forward for the Sounders this year(or center forward if we wish to define the wingers in a 433 as forwards). Given that his expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes output has dropped 40% from last year to this year, has Sigi made a colossal blunder, or is there some secret genius to it all that I'm simply not seeing?
SaH: A lot of times Clint is listed as a CAM he's actually playing as a withdrawn forward and the wingers are more like wide mids in a 4-4-1-1. While some of the problem is positioning (he was a wide player a half the time). More of the issue is that he's not surrounded by as talented players. Losing an Obafemi Martins is a huge deal. Replacing Neagle and Barrett with Kovar and Oalex Anderson is a large down grade as well.
With all the success Dempsey had in the Copa most focused on the positional situation and not the fact that he was surrounded by 10 players that are Jordan Morris quality or better. With the Sounders he has Marshall, Evans, Alonso and Morris at that level. Replacing two of Seattle's starters with a DP and a TAM player change Dempsey's surroundings as much as the positional thing. Sigi has settled on Clint being in that free hole behind Morris for now, and I expect that doesn't change for the year.
LAGC: The Jordan Morris project seems to be progressing nicely. Are there elements of his game which have noticeably improved as the season has gone on and he's gotten more and more used to professional soccer?
SaH: The biggest thing is probably his attitude on the pitch. Early in the season he was cautious, waiting for the game to happen. Now he'll try to stand up a defender and blow by them; or he'll get released over the top. Morris understands that he has the dribbling, the strength, the speed and the shot to succeed in MLS. He's using those skills. His left foot is a touch better. It's used more as a quick passing device rather than for his shot, but that should be enough to get him over the 10 goal mark.
LAGC: The kids seem to be getting a lot more minutes these days. Aside from Morris, who are the young players who have stood out the most and how might they impact the game against the Galaxy?
SaH: There are two other U23s getting significant time with the Sounders this year. Aaron Kovar has become the regular starter on the right wing. He's got a solid left-footed cross and is starting to read the game well enough to cut towards the top of the box. He's also one of the faster players on the team. Recently the team has used long balls to him more effectively.
Cristian Roldan, a former player of the year in California, is the heir apparent to Ozzie. Roldan played more as an attacker in college, but is now the type of destroyer that Alonso was back in 09/10. His passing is decent, if overly cautious. Nimble and quick when Roldan plays he's more likely to be the anchor and let the other CMs get forward more often than he does.
Projected Lineup: Frei; Jones, Marshall, Evans, Mears; Alonso, Friberg; Dempsey; Ivanschitz, Morris, Kovar