CARSON, Calif. — It turns out one week is an eternity in Major League Soccer. As the sole evidence of this highly scientific observation, we present the LA Galaxy.
One week ago, the defending MLS champions were walking off the carved up green of Home Depot Center having failed to take advantage of home field. They were on their way to Santa Clara carrying a 1-0 deficit after late errors gifted the Earthquakes’ Victor Bernardez the series-opening goal. One website (author’s note: this one) previewed the second leg by saying, “it’s hard to see a way through here for the Galaxy.” It wasn’t a controversial prediction.
But something happened on LA’s way to the offseason. They woke up. Bruce Arena’s team scored three first half goals in Santa Clara and sent the Supporters’ Shield winners packing. Add in Sunday’s 3-0 drubbing of the higher-seeded Seattle Sounders, and the Galaxy are back to their championship-prowling selves.
So what happened? How did the Galaxy go from near-extinction to stream rolling some of the league’s best teams?
“I think we needed a kick up the backside, and probably [the San Jose loss] was it,” David Beckham said, thinking back to the team’s mindset after last Sunday’s loss.
“Before the San Jose game away, our movement and our fitness maybe wasn’t as good,” Beckham conceded. “But I think we’ve picked it up. We realized to go all the way in this competition, we have to pick it up … We’ve brought out standards higher.”
For defender Todd Dunivant, Bernardez’s goal was almost a blessing – a wakeup call. Combined with San Jose’s passive posture to start the first leg in Santa Clara, the deficit gave LA license to jump on the front foot.
“[Bernardez’s goal] kind of propelled us,” Dunivant said.”It changes the whole mindset of the series. San Jose suddenly goes in not as aggressive. Maybe they’re just trying to protect the lead and not lose the game, and now we’re the aggressors.”
According to Dunivant, that posture has changed from the sluggish, lackluster side that gave up as many goals as they scored in their first two playoff games. Over their last two matches, LA has outscored their opponents 6-1.
“We’ve been aggressive, and we’ve taken our chances when they’re there,” Dunivant said. “We sensed the opportunity tonight.”
The biggest example of that has been Los Angeles’s suddenly unstoppable counter attack. On Wednesday, Tommy Meyer set Landon Donovan lose on San Jose, the Galaxy captain hitting Robbie Keane for the series’ winning goal. Against Seattle, it was Keane’s turn to orchestrate, feeding Sean Franklin behind the defense, LA’s right back setting up Mike Magee for the night’s second goal.
“Quick movement and quick counter attack and transitions,” Keane cites, asked to explain LA’s turnaround. “We have clever players in the team that could cause any team problems … If we keep the ball, keep it moving quickly, we’re a very hard team to play against.”
The quick movements, the sharp decisions on the ball – they weren’t there before Los Angeles departed for San Jose. Whatever the reason – fatigue, lack of focus, the need for a kick up the backside – Los Angeles was not playing like MLS champions. But with their back against the wall at Buck Shaw Stadium, things changed.
“When you play quite a few games in a short space of time, you become a little bit stale, a little bit tired,” Beckham explained. “We had that in the first game against San Jose. We’d come off a tough game against Vancouver, scraped through in that one, then [came] up against a San Jose team that was very strong.
“I think we recovered a lot better than [San Jose]. I said it that day after the game … Leading into the second one, we were ready … Our confidence was up, and it showed … It showed in this game as well.”
There haven’t been any tactical revelations. There’s been no shakeup to the lineup, no emotional pleas from the coaching staff or captain. Chalk it up to whatever you want – aggression, movement, a wakeup call – LA’s just playing better. They’re playing harder. They’re executing.
Sometimes, the most obvious answer is the right one.
“There’s never any secrets,” head coach Bruce Arena quips, asked to explain his team’s turnaround. “I’d like to tell you that we have a lot of [secrets] and we pulled them out for this. Just playing well and obviously scoring goals and being a lot more solid defensively. Just overall, we’re playing better.”
And as Bruce Arena sees it, LA’s only getting better:
“The 90 (minutes) in San Jose was good, and tonight was more complete. I think we were a little sloppy in the last 15 minutes in San Jose. Tonight was better, so that’s encouraging.”