MLS Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps vs. LA Galaxy

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  • Donovan, Keane with back-to-back hat tricks.
  • Vancouver 8-1-3 at home this season.
  • Whitecaps won last meeting at BC Place, 3-1.

Back-to-back weeks, Los Angeles has got a hat trick from a Designated Player. Landon Donovan’s three goals in Dallas helped the two-time defending champions take a point from Dallas two weeks ago, while Robbie Keane’s second half explosion against Real Salt Lake saw the Galaxy crush the Western Conference’s leaders. Given this trend, surely Omar Gonzalez, Los Angeles’s new Designated Player, is ready for an offensive explosion Saturday at BC Place?

Obviously, that’s unlikely, and not only because of Gonzalez’s position (central defender) or the sure improbability of having any player score a hat trick. The Vancouver Whitecaps, LA’s Saturday opponent, are 8-1-3 at home this season, their only loss coming in a game where Jun Marques Davidson was sent off in the eighth minute. The only other teams to take points out of BC Place have been Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, and Portland, the last of those draws coming on May 18. Since then, the only blemish in the Whitecaps’ six home games has been Philadelphia’s 1-0, 11-on-10 win.

Given the nature of their home ground, it’s easy to see what the Whitecaps have such an advantage. It’s like playing on the surface of a pool table, the fast artificial field allowing balls to roll forever across the BC Place pitch. Though there are other artificial surfaces in the league, Vancouver’s may be the only one that makes no attempt to even emulate natural grass. It’s a rug, and although it’s not as bad as Astroturf, games at Vancouver often harken back to the early days of MLS, when it was far more common to see a touch pass from midfield roll out of bounds when a surprised fullback forgets the ball’s seeing no resistance.

If you play on that field 17-or-more times a year, you become used to it. You know how to weight your passes. You know the effort it will take to run down a ball. You know the speed at which the game’s going to be played.

If you’re not used to it, you have to adjust. You’re at a steeper disadvantage than you’d see face on any other road trip. And you’re facing a team with talents to take advantage of the pace.

Los Angeles certainly have the ability to adjust. Robbie Keane is old, but he’s not slow, and although Landon Donovan isn’t World Cup 2002-fast anymore, speed is still his ally. Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho are quick enough in the middle, while the thoroughbreds Bruce Arena can choose from on the outside are capable of keeping up with most.

But with Vancouver coming close the last time the two teams played (a 2-1 loss in Carson) and LA having won only three road games this season, Galaxy hat tricks are unlikely. On that slab at BC Place, LA biggest worry is keeping up.

The Galaxy will go into Saturday’s game in fourth place, holding 37 points after 24 games. The Whitecaps are in fifth with 36 points in 24 matches.

What they are saying

LA Galaxy forward Landon Donovan: “It’s pretty crazy, and, really, in the whole league. Because at the end of the day, teams that get to the final, if you want the game at home, there might be a point or two separating you from the other teams. Not only do you want to get in the playoffs and hopefully win the West, but you want to keep an eye on the East, too, and see if you can pass all those teams.” [source]

LA Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant: “When you factor in games in hand, it’s a virtual tie among a lot of teams. Fortunately, eight of our 10 games are against conference opponents. You can make up points. And then, obviously, other teams are playing a lot of conference teams.” [source]

Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie: “”We’re the home team, and we need to put the other team under pressure. We’ve been doing very well at home and scoring quite a lot of goals. We need to keep that going.” [source]

Prediction

LA’s last visit to Vancouver ended in a 3-1 loss, Russell Teibert scoring twice in the second half. This game could play out similarly. There’s no combination of LA defenders that look like a good matchup on BC Place’s field against Tiebert, Camilo, and Kenny Miller, and with Nigel Reo-Coker playing well, it may take an off day from the Whitecaps to keep them from climbing the West’s standings.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.