LD retires to his plow and Stevie G comes in to replace him on the field, in our hearts and in AEG’s shirt profit ledger. He brings with him world class chance creation, a legitimate physical presence in central midfield and LA’s first dead-ball specialist since David Beckham left the team in 2012. He should prove to be an instrumental piece of LA’s continued reign of terror over the MLS standings, playoffs, and the chances of other teams at taking home the coveted MLS cup, right?
Well, not so fast. Gerrard doesn’t show up until July and the Galaxy have twenty games between first kick and then. Prior to and indeed after Gerrard’s arrival, there will be some interesting problems that will need addressing in the wake of Donovan’s retirement.
The first problem is going to be replacing Donovan’s chance creation and scoring abilities. In the last five years, Donovan was credited for 61 assists for LA. It’s going to be a very long time before a single Galaxy player puts up a number like that, so chance generation will likely be spread around the midfield. Without Donovan and all the attention he draws, there will need to be more runners in and around the box, more players looking to make the last pass, and more lethal finishing all around. This past season, nine different players scored for the Galaxy, which was the fewest in the team’s history. That will have to change if they expect to contend for the Supporter’s Shield again.
Marcelo Sarvas’s trade to the Rapids makes for another gaping hole in the Galaxy midfield. Sarvas acted as Galaxy’s metronome since Beckham’s departure and, for the past two years, had been LA’s assist leader among players making less than $3,000,000. If the Galaxy land Sacha Kljestan (and that is still very much an “if”), it should soften the blow both tactically and in the hearts and minds of fans, but it will still lead to a majorly new look for the Galaxy attack.
Stefan Ishizaki will likely take on most of the creative burden with Juninho and Husidic focusing more on possession. Robbie Keane may have to drop back less without Donovan cutting into the box. Fewer scoring threats out of the midfield means that Keane will take on even more of the responsibility, even with the emergence and hopefully continued development of Gyasi Zardes. Alan Gordon may also be tasked with more clutch goals off the bench. If Kljestan lands in LA, he’ll either slot into the central role he’s played for Anderlecht, or reach back into his Chivas years and sit out wide to provide more creative service.
If he doesn’t come? Things get muddier. Zardes could drop back into a left wing position, where he showed some inconsistent promise over the past two seasons, opening up a starting spot for Alan Gordon. Husidic could be pushed out wide with the reliable but unremarkable Kenney Walker starting as a true defensive mid, and there’s an outside chance that Robbie Rogers once again finds himself in the midfield with Todd Dunivant or AJ DeLaGarza taking over at left back. Suffice it to say, it’s impossible to tell where the team will be best with so many options and it is a good problem to have, even if the loss of LA’s two best midfielders will surely be noticed.
Tactically, expect LA to stick with the flat 4-4-2 that saw them through mid-season to a fifth MLS Cup win in 2014. While the narrow diamond midfield Bruce Arena experimented with made for some intriguing possession numbers, the team simply didn’t score enough to string results together. The fact is that in 2014 the team scored at a significantly higher rate when making the game wider. They score more when they simply have more room to breathe. Away from Stub Hub center in 2014, the team scored 1.2 goals per game on fields larger than 9000 square yards as opposed to the single goal per game they averaged on smaller surfaces. Ishizaki, while an excellent player all around, looked nothing like a true playmaker at the tip of LA’s diamond, further suggesting that the team will stick with a flatter midfield.
The name of the game in 2015 will be finding that width. Husidic could look to tuck in centrally from the left to allow Robbie Rogers to bomb forward down the wing. On the right, Ishizaki will find space out wide with an aim to cut in, cut back, or cross. There are questions surrounding Robbie Rogers’s predisposition toward injury and whether or not Dan Gargan can have the same quality he had in 2014, which may influence how the team lines up in the coming season, but the team is going to need to stretch defenses to score no matter what those answers are.
When July finally rolls around and Stevie G takes the field, he won’t cover the same ground that Sarvas has in the past and he won’t have the midfield mind-meld with Juninho. The ambivalence toward the acquisition comes from the fans not wanting to break up Sarvas and Juninho’s midfield tandem but, sadly, Bruce Arena has made that decision for them. The thing to understand about the way LA plays the 4-4-2 is that it doesn’t require two true wide players on the outside to function and thrive. Baggio Husidic scored 5 and assisted on 4 more from limited minutes at wide midfield, a position to which he was far from accustomed. There’s no reason to think that it would be any different for whomever ends up there.
The Galaxy will begin to look like a hybrid of the 2012 and 2014 teams. Gerrard, for his part, will absolutely improve LA’s attack and perhaps their possession numbers as well. He won’t be able to stand up to clogged midfields in the way Juninho and Sarvas have, but he can draw defenders deep and skip the midfield entirely with a well placed long ball up to Keane, Zardes, Gordon, Ishizaki, Rogers, or any other player who could easily find themselves isolated and onside in the attacking half. Set pieces will also return to the Galaxy repertoire and Gerrard’s expert service will finally take advantage of a team that has quietly built up height after a few years of being physically unremarkable. While, barring injury, it’s unlikely that they’ll all be on the field at the same time, Gonzalez, Gordon, Zardes, and Leonardo all provide imposing presences in the box.
Speed has also returned to the lineup with the respective resurgence and development of Rogers and Zardes leading to a welcome return of the counter-attack to the Galaxy’s A-game. If Juninho can engineer space for Gerrard, he should be able to take full advantage of the aforementioned width and be a terror to teams all over the league.
All of this isn’t to suggest that there aren’t concerns surrounding Gerrard playing the conquering hero. This is a man who, with the World Cup this past summer, hasn’t had a real break since the end of the 2012-2013 season and with his advancing age, questions of fatigue naturally arise. Plus, fans wouldn’t be out of line to wonder if he would show up to a team playing well that may be more hurt in the weeks following his arrival. He has played for exactly one club in his entire career and he’s been used to pulling all the strings. Perhaps he won’t be able to adjust quickly enough to lead LA through the playoffs.
Ultimately, the concerns are mostly unfounded. Gerrard is simply world class. He’s been called the best by the best. He won’t dominate MLS immediately, he won’t somehow become the assist leader after playing less than half a season. He will, however, make a great team better. Better than they were with Landon Donovan? Quite possibly.