At this point of the MLS season, we are faced with the unappetizing thought that the L.A. Galaxy might win the whole thing. An eventuality that is worth pondering, because a Galaxy championship would be accomplished with a team playing remorselessly pragmatic soccer. The Galaxy, truth be told, is not a particularly entertaining outfit.
It came into New Jersey last week to take on the Red Bulls. The Bulls had all three of their DPs on the field -- Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez -- but the Galaxy won the game, 1-0.
It didn’t really deserve the win -- a tied game would have been a more accurate scoreline -- but that is my point. The Galaxy is now a team that can “grind out” a 1-0 win. I don’t particularly like that phrase, but it will have to do.
If a game is close, I’d put money on the Galaxy winning it.
Coach Bruce Arena has his players trained to make one goal stand up. I won’t belabor the point because it is one that is often bandied around by coaches and players: the ability to forget all about playing soccer, but simply to concentrate on the scoreline. No need to apologize for playing ugly -0 quite the opposite, boast about it and point to the three points raked in.
If I sound somewhat disappointed by what I’m writing, that is because I am disappointed. A team with Landon Donovan on it ought to be giving us something better than mere effective soccer.
For a start, MLS needs brighter soccer. It is vitally important that the league consistently puts on the field an entertaining, exciting brand of soccer. One would expect that the Galaxy would be at the forefront of doing just that. The 18-man roster that they brought to the Red Bull had plenty of good attacking players on it -- alongside Donovan were Edson Buddle, Tristan Bowen, Juninho and Michael Stephens plus two lively flank players in Sean Franklin and A.J. DeLaGarza. From the bench, we had Chris Klein, Jovan Kirovski and Mike Magee.
Yet this was still a labored performance. OK, Arena was sick, recovering from a battle with a virus, and was not on the bench. But that had nothing to do with the way the Galaxy played. I have seen enough of the team already this season to know what to expect.
Frankly, it baffles me. With that roster, and with David Beckham hovering in the wings, the Galaxy ought to be -- by far -- the most enterprising, the most watchable, team in the league. They are anything but that. What on earth has got into Arena? Could it be that the Beckham influence, which means the Brit influence, has got to him? Does Arena now imagine that the Galaxy playing like Blackburn Rovers is playing good soccer?
I do wonder -- seriously -- about that dreary Brit influence. A couple of weeks back, the Galaxy went to Puerto Rico, trying to repair an earlier 4-1 loss to the Islanders. It managed a 2-1 win, not enough, and in the process Arena used one of the oldest and crudest of British tactical ploys: he sent the “big man” up front. So center back Omar Gonzalez became a center forward for the last 10 minutes or so of the game, with goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts banging long balls up field for him to get his head on.
Is that really the best that Arena and Donovan and the Galaxy can do? It never got to that stage in the Red Bulls' game because the Galaxy took an early (10th minute) lead on a neat Edson Buddle goal and managed, not without some difficulty, to keep the not overly-impressive Red Bulls at bay for 80 minutes.
In his post-game remarks, Bulls coach Hans Backe admitted that the game did not rate highly as entertainment. (Backe, incidentally, is a real gem among coaches for he gives his answers concisely, articulately and honestly -- the very opposite of the USA’s Bob Bradley who has trouble giving a straightforward answer to even the simplest of questions).
Backe was hopeful, feeling that the Red Bulls had played well in patches, and that things would improve as Henry and Marquez settle into the team. That may well be so. In which case the Red Bulls could present a formidable challenge to the Galaxy when playoff time arrives.
There are other candidates as MLS Cup winners, of course. Holders Real Salt Lake, for a start, then FC Dallas. Their records -- their stats, that is -- are not as good as the Galaxy’s. But why do Jeff Cunningham and David Ferreira and Atiba Harris, or Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola, make the game look more vibrant, more enticing, than anything that Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle and Juninho manage to come up with?
A matter of opinion, no doubt. But also, for me, a matter of artistry. Even with the unquestionable talents of Donovan, the Galaxy come up short in that area. Their game is too geometrical, too predictable, too unimaginative. The Galaxy is the league’s top-scoring team with 32 goals, and I have seen most of those goals -- but I’m finding it hard to recall any of them. I checked back on the last 15 goals scored by the Galaxy and found nothing to set my pulse racing, apart, maybe, from Juninho’s 30-yard blast against Seattle -- hardly a team goal.
I mentioned earlier, the possibility of a Brit influence when things got desperate; but the standard playing style seems to owe more to the systematic efficiency of the Dutch. We’re back to “well-organized” -- hence the league-leading defense, with only 13 goals conceded in 20 games. Add in the midfield bullyboys Chris Birchall and/or Dema Kovalenko, and we have an “effective,” league-leading team.
It’s quite likely that many MLS people would like to see the Galaxy -- with a fit Beckham back in the lineup -- win MLS Cup. Which would be fine -- but, please, not the Galaxy playing the way it does now.