Defending MLS champs seldom look the part in post-Donovan days

By Ridge Mahoney

Two months into the post-Landon Donovan Era, how do things look for the defending champ?

Not so great, according to head coach Bruce Arena after a 1-1 tie with Colorado Saturday at StubHub Center. Robbie Keane missed his fourth straight game and the Galaxy didn’t win, but it is unbeaten in those four games and tucked into fourth place. Still, Arena wasn’t buying anything except his own blunt assessment.

“The game was lousy, and everything with it was lousy,” said Arena afterwards. “We pushed to try and win the game. Colorado did a good job slowing the game down. I don’t think the referee really had a clue as to what was going on. It really, really slowed the game and [they] tried to get out of here with a point. Give them credit; they got out of here with what they wanted.”

A glaring giveaway by Omar Gonzalez had served up Colorado’s goal and little about the overall performance had pleased Arena. The Rapids had played just three days earlier in New York and perhaps Arena believed even a team starting a few reserves should have been able to exploit a fatigued opponent, but after taking an early lead on Gabriel Torres’ fourth goal in the last five games they were able to barricade the final third until the 75th minute. Alan Gordon, who else, came off the bench to equalize from a corner kick swung in by another sub, Stefan Ishizaki.

“We didn’t play that well today,” said midfielder Mika Vayrynen, one of several midfielders whose yet to establish his presence in midfield. “In the first half we created a couple of chances that we could’ve scored but overall we didn’t play that well and we didn’t get the ball forward. But luckily, Gordon saved us today and we were lucky to get a point.”

Former Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas missed the rematch with his former team as he recovers from knee surgery, though he attended the game with his family. The retirement of Donovan and Keane’s absence for one-half of the Galaxy’s games this year are the most glaring changes, yet removing Sarvas has disrupted a midfield balance essential to the team’s success the past few years. The Galaxy is scuffling for points as it seeks to regain the balance and stability that were provided by Sarvas and Juninho, who could seamlessly share myriad midfield roles or trade them off when necessary.

Husidic, while talented, hasn’t been able to maintain a consistent influence either out wide or centrally. In this match he played on the right before being replaced by Ishizaki. Vayrynen was paired in the middle with Rafael Garcia, who made just his fourth MLS start since being taken in the 2012 Supplemental Draft. Garcia played 69 minutes before Ishizaki replaced him.

“I thought he had a good game,” Arena said of Garcia. “He always does a good job for us, but again I think it’s important that our whole team be ready to play. Over the last three or four weeks, he has gotten some time, which I think will give him confidence and have him prepared to play as we get into the last 25 games or so of the season.”

On the left side Arena sent out Spanish rookie Ignacio Maganto, who played 72 minutes in his MLS debut. He gave way to Gordon, who needed just three minutes to score his team-high third goal of the season.

A lousy showing and a clueless referee notwithstanding, Arena did see something from the younger players he’ll need in a month or two when injuries, suspension, and international commitments set in. Maganto volleyed a Robbie Rogers cross over the crossbar midway through the first half and impressed his teammates by challenging the Rapids on numerous occasions.

“He was all over the place,” said Gyasi Zardes, who scored 16 goals last season but has just one so far in 2015. “Yeah, very energetic. First time starting, was it? He wasn’t scared to take on a defender. I thought that was wonderful. It just shows you what kind of player Ignacio is.”

The Galaxy will find out this week what kind of a team they are with road games three days apart against traditional foe Real Salt Lake and current conference leader FC Dallas. RSL could be without playmaker Javier Morales, who left its game last weekend with an apparent concussion. FCD is smoking hot after drilling Houston, 4-1. The three-game road swing concludes May 17 at Orlando City.

Only seldom so far this season has the defending champion looked the part but the track record of smoothing out rough spots is unparalleled. There are still 25 games left to figure things out.

“It’s great just to get a point out of this game,” said Zardes. “And now we go on the road for a long period of time so it’s really going to define our team. Just the games they are coming up, they are huge games and to get three wins would be phenomenal.”

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