Galaxy Midfield Buckles Under RSL’s Superior Possession

Written by Ian Thomson

Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake kicked off their 2012 Major League Soccer campaigns Saturday with a repeat of last season’s Western Conference Final. Real’s patient possession game, aided by amateurish defending by Bruce Arena’s side, ensured that the visitors reversed last November’s 3-1 scoreline.

Approach

Galaxy's midfield struggled against RSL's patient build-up

Arena made two changes from the Galaxy team that snatched a 2-2 tie in Toronto three night earlier in the CONCACAF Champions League. Rookie defender Tommy Meyer and Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Sarvas made their MLS debuts. Andrew Boyens and Juninho dropped to the bench.

Nine of Real’s starters featured in last year’s Western Conference Final. Head Coach Jason Kreis handed a debut to 21-year-old Colombian midfielder Sebastian Velasquez on the left of his midfield diamond. Brazilian forward Paulo Araujo Jr. was selected ahead of designated player Alvaro Saborio.

Beckham: A Liability In The Center

David Beckham’s fifth and final season of his original $6.5 million-a-year MLS contract was easily his best. Saturday’s showing was akin to his first two years. Opta stats show that the Englishman conceded possession 36 times, or less than every two minutes that the ball was in play, with only 31 of his 66 passes finding a teammate.

Beckham set the tone early on Saturday. He was fortunate not to receive a third—minute booking for a scything challenge on Paulo Jr. after his loose control gave the ball away.

The former England captain’s next touch saw him dropping deep to thump a Sean Franklin pass into a vacuous part of the field. Another cheap giveaway on 12 minutes almost allowed Fabian Espindola to send Paulo Jr. through on goal but the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers forward strayed offside.

RSL's youngsters Velasquez and Gil caused Galaxy problems

Toronto’s Luis Silva caused problems for the Galaxy last Wednesday with his ability to float into the hole between the center-backs and midfielders. Youngsters Velasquez and Luis Gil were doing likewise for Real. The former fired a shot over Josh Saunders’ goal on 17 minutes after Beckham and Sarvas left too big a gap at the edge of the penalty area.

That gap appeared again on 24 minutes when Real countered after Chris Wingert tackled Landon Donovan on the halfway line and quickly released Paulo Jr. down the left wing. Real’s movement was poor with four players attacking the six-yard box in a line in anticipation of Wingert’s eventual cross. One of then should have stayed deeper to give the full-back an open option in the space that Beckham and Sarvas left exposed.

Better RSL movement would exploit gaps at edge of Galaxy's penalty area

Galaxy: Down But Never Out

Los Angeles’ attacks seemed confined to whacking long balls for Robbie Keane to chase. That’s hardly the best use of the Irishman’s talents, or those of Beckham, Donovan and Edson Buddle. Still, the Galaxy almost took the lead on 26 minutes after a slip from Kyle Beckerman gave Donovan possession.

The United States’ all-time leading goalscorer quickly released Keane. His intended cross to strike-partner Buddle was crucially intercepted by Chris Schuler. Suddenly the Galaxy flooded forward. Donovan smacked the crossbar with a long-range drive and RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando dived to push away Mike Magee’s overhead kick from Beckham’s chip back into the box.

Sarvas came even closer a minute before half-time when his thunderous shot bounced onto the goal line after hitting Rimando’s bar.

Wasteful Espindola

Real continued to dictate the game, limiting the Galaxy to infrequent attacking surges. The visitors had two great opportunities to take the lead in the opening minutes of the second half. Both were spurned by Espindola’s selfishness and/or lack of awareness.

The Argentine forward inexplicably shot tamely at Saunders from outside the penalty area on a 47th-minute breakaway when he had four teammates in support. He chose to shoot again, with the same result, on 56 minutes after receiving an excellent cross-field pass from Velasquez despite three men breaking into the box.

Wasteful Espindola shoots with four men in support early in second half

Espindola found a dangerous position on the left of the box on 64 minutes after Gil’s pass inside Franklin. His cross didn’t beat the first defender.

Substitutions Have Immediate Effects For Both Coaches

Kreis pepped up his attack on 67 minutes by introducing two-time MLS All-Star Javier Morales for Gil and Saborio for Paulo Jr.

Arena also made a double-change on 70 minutes. Juninho replaced Sarvas in the center of midfield alongside Michael Stephens, who replaced the ineffectual Magee. Donovan switched to the left of midfield with Beckham sliding to the right.

Galaxy found the breakthrough almost immediately. Beckham found space to do what he does best as Los Angeles quickly shifted the ball from left to right. The former Manchester United man served a dangerous cross toward the penalty spot and Buddle connected to steer his downward header past Rimando.

For all its aesthetic quality, it was a goal that RSL should have prevented. The quality of Beckham’s cross eliminated Chris Schuler, but Real still had two defenders picking up the Galaxy’s two forwards. Jamison Olave simply failed to attack the ball.

The Galaxy’s unlikely lead didn’t last long. Franklin sliced the ball into his own net on 73 minutes when trying to clear a Velasquez cross with his wrong foot, and RSL went ahead seven minutes later after more defensive negligence from Beckham.

Ned Grabavoy was granted the freedom of Dominguez Hills down the left as Beckham hounded referee Kevin Stott over a prior non-call. His cross was eventually prodded into the net by substitute Morales.

Arena threw on Chad Barrett for Meyer in the 84th-minute in an attempt to rescue the game, but RSL exploited the extra space within seconds of the restart to seal the three points. Espindola shrugged off an overzealous challenge from A.J. DeLaGarza before advancing on Saunders’ goal and drilling his shot into the far corner.

Conclusion

As in the midweek game at Toronto, the Galaxy’s midfield proved weak at shielding their central defenders. Giving up such big gaps at the edge of the penalty area is a feature that many MLS sides are positioned to exploit this year, with Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver Whitecaps among those loaded with elusive withdrawn forwards and wingers who like to cut inside.

It’s an impressive start from Real Salt Lake who will now look to finish March in a strong league position with home games against New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA up next.