The Galaxy is rolling. Any reasons not to jump on the bandwagon?
Yes, but they aren’t easy to find. More than two months of the regular season remain, which is more than enough time for injuries or fizzling form or nagging fatigue to derail the L.A. express. The Supporters’ Shield is certainly within reach, yet staying healthy and hungry is more important than ascending the summit.
Performance and results don’t always jibe, but since the World Cup break just about every game has marked an improvement both collectively and individually. Robbie Rogers is coming to grips of playing left back and veteran Todd Dunivant, one of the league’s best at that position for the past decade, faces a battle when he returns to full fitness. Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza are rekindling memories of their college days as well as their impressive rookie seasons in 2009. Gyasi Zardes is maturing into a bruiser with brains as well as pace. The list goes on.
Not only is the collective growing in strength, but different players are stepping forward to make the difference. Rogers unhinged Portland numerous times in a 3-1 victory Saturday, five days after right back Dan Gargan and central mid Marcelo Sarvas tormented the Sounders in a 3-0 rout at CenturyLink Field that could have been twice as large with justification.
Sarvas earned the second assist on the opening goal against Seattle by playing a ball that Landon Donovan crossed for Zardes to head home, lashed a shot that produced a rebound Donovan tapped in for the second goal, and played a ball at the perfect weight and angle for Stefan Ishizaki -- another player fitting snugly into his spot at right mid -- to drill low inside the far post. Gargan didn’t show up on the scoresheet yet meshed perfectly with Ishizaki on the right flank to either overlap or linger in support to line up a cross or slip a ball into the middle.
Seattle surely missed centerback Chad Marshall, who was a late scratch with back spasms stemming from minor injuries he suffered in a car accident two days previous. Yet the Galaxy stifled the Sounders while racking up three goals before halftime and seldom buckled as the hosts pressed desperately throughout the second half.
After scoring twice as the Galaxy posted a 3-1 defeat of Portland at StubHub Center on Saturday, striker Robbie Keane cited a switch from a diamond midfield to a standard 4-4-2 as a major factor in the team’s sharp improvement. It’s obvious that most of the players find good starting positions in that formation and know well the angles and moves it requires. Yet it’s also obvious that many of them already smell the playoffs and have raised their levels of effort and intensity accordingly.
There’s an inherent danger is peaking too soon or finishing the season burned out, which befalls at least one good MLS team in every postseason. On its way to the 2012 title, the Galaxy rallied from a slow start -- and a preseason injury to Gonzalez that kept him out until August -- to dispatch archrival and Supporters’ Shield winner San Jose in the conference semifinals.
The Galaxy surge this season can be traced to a game against the Quakes in late June -- the annual fireworks spectacular at Stanford Stadium. San Jose won the inaugural staging in 2012 by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win, 4-3, and did it again last year with stoppage-time goals in a riveting 3-2 victory. A crowd of 50,006 turned up June 28 expecting explosive action on the field as well as in the post-game skies.
When Zardes broke open a goalless game in the 61st minute -- from a Sarvas assist -- most of those in attendance must have been thinking, “We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em!” But the Goonie Magic didn’t show up. Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo parried a sharp Steven Lenhart header, the back line held firm against several waves of attacks, and a few blocks and desperation clearances stymied the Quakes until the final whistle. Rogers and a few teammates survived their rare shaky moments and finally the Curse of Stanford had been broken.
The Galaxy hasn’t been unbeatable since then, far from it. It needed an own goal in the 86th minute to salvage a 2-2 tie with Portland at StubHub Center in its own fireworks game, and after thrashing New England, 5-1, at home, it stumbled at Sporting Park to the defending champion Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, for a loss that snapped an eight-game unbeaten streak. And the less said about the 7-0 pummeling administered by Manchester United July 23, the better.
Where are the question marks? There are a few.
Penedo isn’t generally regarded as one of the league’s elite keepers, and though he’s toughened up dealing with traffic in front of him he still can get blocked going for set plays and crosses. Yet as head coach Bruce Arena has demonstrated with D.C. United and the Galaxy, he doesn’t need a top keeper to go all the way. (He rotated keepers at D.C. United and jettisoned starter Josh Saunders right after MLS Cup 2012.)
Donovan’s hot and cold displays can be frustrating. He played sharply in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup snub, by his own admission flattened out for while, and lately has has regained his energy and zip. That’s normal for a 32-year-old heavily dependent on his speed and change of direction, and if there’s one coach who can manage Donovan’s minutes and situations wisely, it’s Arena.
The Rogers Experiment at left back has yet to conclude. He got a few starts in that spot for the Galaxy II reserve team and despite glitches -- his giveaway led to the free kick by which Portland took the lead and in the same game he could have been whistled for a penalty kick when he clipped an opponent’s ankle -- he’s improving defensively while boosting the attack. If the experiment blows up, Dunivant is nearly ready.
There’s much more to evaluate as the Galaxy heads down the stretch, but a team that has won four MLS Cups and reached the final game on four other occasions has back class as well as current performance to recommend it.