What happened to the grind 'em-out Galaxy?

By Paul Gardner

I'm not sure how long the various MLS coaches and clubs expect their fans to put up with this. I'm talking of the decidedly scrappy soccer that the league served up over the weekend. That's an impression, of course -- my impression -- but I'll go with it.

And were I in a position to demand an explanation from said coaches, I already know what would be the most frequent excuse. I would be told that things are getting serious now, that the battle for playoff berths is heating up. No time now for ... well, no time for what? No time for good soccer?

No, it wouldn't exactly be put that way, but that would be the covert message. We are told, again and again, by coaches from all around the world, at every level, that all that matters in these "serious" situations is getting the points.

That attitude seems to be totally acceptable -- as is the inevitable accompaniment to it: that the games look less and less like soccer, and more and more like tedious trials of strength and fortitude.

In the current MLS situation, then, the vital thing is simply to qualify for the playoffs. If that means a boring 1-0 win, so be it. That is actually considered to be good thing in many coaching eyes.

There were many experts who cast their beady eyes over last year's Los Angeles Galaxy and discovered that the team had, with 55 goals, actually been the league's top scorer. Alas, the team had also let in a league-leading 62 goals.

Now that doesn't sound like too bad a starting point. Obviously you've got a potent attack going, and everyone, even most coaches, agrees that attacking play -- i.e. scoring goals -- is the most difficult part of the sport. So, all incoming Coach Bruce Arena had to do was bolster the defense. But it evidently needed a lot of bolstering. Even assuming the prolific goalscoring could continue, at least 20 goals would have to come off that goals-against total of 62.

The Galaxy's early results showed promise by those criteria. The TV experts were heard saying that the team was now much more solid; a series of four consecutive (and remarkably dull) 1-1 ties in May apparently proved the point. But the real proof that Arena had turned things around came a few games later, when the Galaxy reeled off three 1-0 wins. That apparently, was a bit more like it. Now -- and I heard this more than once -- the Galaxy had learned how to "grind out" 1-0 wins. Maybe. But it was desperate stuff ... and this was a team featuring Landon Donovan, the league's most sparkling player (to say nothing, after July 16, of wonder boy David Beckham).

When medals are handed out to the grinders, it becomes absolutely pointless to talk of things like style and excitement and entertainment. Forget it. The stats now tell the tale. Admittedly, goalscoring has slumped quite a bit -- down from 1.83 a game to 1.50. But that is not a concern. The really exciting news is what "grinding out" results has done at the other end of the field. That awful average of giving up more than 2 goals-per game has been vastly improved. Now it's only 1 per game. And the Galaxy sits in second place in the Western standings with a playoff place virtually guaranteed.

Assuming you don't give a damn about the quality of the soccer, that's a pretty sunny picture, for sure. Or it was -- until Saturday evening when FC Dallas tromped all over the Galaxy to the tune of 6-3 -- the Galaxy's worst-ever goals-against loss.

What happened? According to Arena "We were awful from the opening kickoff and deserved everything we got," which is straight-talking, but hardly an explanation.

Let me offer two explanations. The first being that the Galaxy, with an over-rated defense of far-too-slow old-timers (particularly Greg Berhalter) and inexperienced rookies (Omar Gonzalez) was found out by a wonderfully speedy and skillful performance from Jeff Cunningham and by a team that kept the pedal down the whole game.

My second explanation builds somewhat on that. There's some wishful thinking here, too. It seems that in modern soccer -- certainly under modern coaches -- defense cannot be strengthened without weakening offense. Here we have a team that scored two goals per game last year. It is now down to 1.3 per game. That is a triumph?

This is not a criticism of Arena's way of setting about that task. I can't think of any coach who would have adopted a different approach. Defense became the No. 1 priority. And I wonder about that. Is it really beyond the modern coaching brains to fashion teams that are defensively sound, but are free-scoring as well? This season the Galaxy are still among the highest scorers -- even though it averaging half a goal a game less than last year. Someone has lowered the bar.

And, of course, at this time of the year, ambitions get lowered as well. Winning is all that matters, grind 'em out. Just so long as we make the playoffs. Once that's been accomplished, then we'll get something known as "playoff soccer" -- which, I should warn you (as if you didn't already know) can also be pretty dire stuff.


2 comments about "What happened to the grind 'em-out Galaxy?".
  1. beautiful game, September 14, 2009 at 9:51 a.m.

    Paul G asks the right questions about the LA Galaxy. This team has firepower potential and yet underachieves on the scoring front while its back line shows too much inconsistencies. My thirst for football is drying up as the MLS performances are mediocre in most cases with a few sporadic exceptions. The quality is not there as mistakes on the pitch are a constant. In short, the mediocrity is taking its toll on the number of supporters as is evident by lower attendance numbers at many soccer specific venues.

  2. Matthew Martin, September 16, 2009 at 12:47 p.m.

    IW Nowozniuk: I understand your fear- Here are more specific reasons for the medicrity: MORE TEAMS, smaller squads, less depth and more movement between teams that requires more time for players to settle. The soccer culture in America is one that does not readily produce creatives so that element seems to come from South and Latin America. Hmmmm, that is truly no different than England, but England does produce more goal scorers- of course the best seem to be coming from Africa not the youth training grounds of England. I think concern shoulf be voiced but poor soccer is not always the culprit in and of itself. Economics and the desparation of a results before all else sports world weigh heavy on EVERY LEAGUE in the world. Not everyone can sign Galacticos, but I think your point and that of Mr Gardner is that we should be coaching and emphasizing more attacking football. Well that will expose our lack of depth and development even more the same way Mexico opened up a can of whoop ass on our MLS heavy side. The Gold Cup showed our strengths and WEAKNESSES. Historically speaking MLS is still very young and needs more quality - that is true BUT the difficulty starts with our bizarre combination of college and academy, of our lack of or better put NEWNESS OF our development efforts. While attendence suffers in some markets MLS is also growing in others at a time when none of the leagues in europe are expanding and few are building new stadiums. We are building and expanding at an amazing rate......but for the reasons cited and an even thinner depth in talent across the league, MLS will suffer in the quality department! I am afraid that the demand for better footy comes from most of the same fans who want victories too and while Mr Gardner's quest is a noble one, what does he offer as a solution? How do we infuse the game with more creatives and strikers when they are so hard to come by and the pay to get those particular talents just isn't there. I'll tell you what we can afford: young guys fresh out of those aforementioned colleges! Are they the best in the world? Apparently not! (See Mexico 5-0) Does the majority of our National Team come from those colleges? Yes! Its about compromise and progress and its going to be measured in fits and starts. Sometimes you really do have to grind out a win, but ultimately a champion like Columbus or Houston, BREAKS OUT and gets it done with some panache. I tip my hat to Bruce Arena for not only winning but keeping his team together in the aftermath of the debacles with Becks and the wheels come off in a loss vs Dallas. The fact is - like the MLSers who worked hard to get to the Gold Cup Final, the youngsters and oldsters at LA will get it right as a team, learn their lessons and get on track again....and as wonderful as that one match was for Jeff Cunningham, DALLAS will stay home and watch the playoffs....there just isn't a way to reward that nice explosion with anything more than 3 points. So how does Bruce get recognition for the work he has done? Oh I forgot, the stats don't support his brand of winning....remember, winning "UGLY" WASN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR Sigi...its good enough for Bruce because of the 2 years without playoffs....its cyclical: eventually Bruce could fall out of favor because the demand for goals and "beauty" returns but for now winning is just going to have to do....and frankly: despite the "mediocrity" and rampant mistakes: MLS IS WINNING! And I mean by laying the groundwork to be here 10 years from now! Mr Gardner, you must keep challenging how the game is run and managed, what is gotten away with or what is considered acceptable. But I don't want your well intended words twisted so that fans miss the point: there are going to be mistakes and steps backward on this path, but there are more reasons than quality affecting attendence. Despite the economic reasons, there is still a need to build awareness and a soliid base- the elitism of the EURO SNOB, is not realistic or helpful. It begins with supporting your local side and making your voice heard at a grassroots and albeit humble on the international level, College and MLS LEVEL. I attend 2 to 3 matches a week at varying levels and I do it critically but I don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!

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