Galaxy contemplate shifting Donovan
So much for the afterglow.
Not only is this phrase the name of an album by Everclear, but it neatly sums up the sentiments emanating from the Los Angeles Galaxy camp just two games into the season. So far, the reigning MLS champs have netted just a solitary point from two home games and have yet to score a goal from the run of play, turning the Galaxy's unexpected run to the 2005 MLS championship into an even more distant memory. Of course, the death of GM Doug Hamilton still casts a pall over the Home Depot Center, but the Galaxy hasn't found much solace on the field.
Following the Galaxy's 1-1 tie with Chicago on Saturday, Landon Donovan compared his side's on-field decision making to that of a high school team. He singled out defender Ugo Ihemelu for conceding a free kick to Fire midfielder Justin Mapp, which ultimately led to Chicago's equalizer. And the Galaxy's inability to create chances in the run of play -- that is, in open play, as opposed to goals scored from free kicks, corners or penalties -- already has head coach Steve Sampson contemplating another Donovan-in-midfield experiment. Except this time, his star would play in a more central position, as opposed to last year's ill-advised stint on the wing.
Such a move would be nothing new for Donovan. The U.S. international has shuttled between the midfield and forward line so often in his career that a permanent case of whiplash ought to have set in by now. Former San Jose head coach Frank Yallop played Donovan in midfield for a significant chunk of the 2002 season. Ditto for Dominic Kinnear in 2004.
Following Saturday's match, Donovan appeared to welcome the possibility, especially on the vast expanses of the Home Depot Center. But regardless of where he plays, Donovan knows that in order to thrive, what he really needs is a forward who can hold the ball up, and that is precisely what is missing from the Galaxy attack.
"The problem is that we don't have the guys that consistently hold the ball up top," Donovan told MLSnet. "For all the good that Herc [Gomez] does, it's not his forte, and it's not really mine. Maybe Cornell [Glen] will help us, but we need to find guys that can do that. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how much I get the ball. If we can't hold the ball when it gets into [the front-runners] then it's useless anyway."
Finding such a player is far from easy. In San Jose, Donovan burned through more strike partners than J-Lo did marriages. There was Ronald Cerritos, Dwayne De Rosario, Ariel Graziani and Junior Agogo. (Who? Exactly.) In Brian Ching, Donovan found the perfect foil, someone to take the abuse and stabilize the attack. This gave Donovan the time and space to weave his magic, even in the narrow confines of Spartan Stadium.
So how was it that Donovan and the Galaxy found so much success last year without the luxury of having a target man in the starting lineup? First, Herculez Gomez was an unknown quantity, and he was able to punish unwary defenses with his speed and ball-striking ability. Now the rest of the league realizes that Gomez is a lot less dangerous when he has his back to the goal, and they've adjusted accordingly. Another reason is that Donovan is the kind of player who, on his day, can summon the kind of wizardry that can win games without the benefit of a target man.
It should also be remembered that in the playoffs, it was the Galaxy defense that provided the platform for Donovan's heroics, as they conceded only two goals in four postseason matches. The back line appears to have carried that form into the current campaign, which should allow Sampson to stay patient as he attempts to patch the cracks that have begun to appear in his team.
Among the bigger deficiencies is the team's dependence on relatively inexperienced players. In performers like Ihemelu, Gomez and Josh Gardner, the Galaxy have talented players at their disposal, who in some cases have played a big role on a championship team. But these players are still young, and not immune from the mistakes that often plague such players. The Galaxy will need to ride out these inconsistencies and their questionable decision making (at times). An example of this occurred late in the game against the Fire, when instead of looking to keep possession, Gardner tried a cheeky dribbling move that saw him dispossessed by a Fire defender. On the ensuing counterattack, Ihemelu was whistled for his takedown of Mapp, and Chicago soon scored.
Sampson also will be hoping that injured players like Alan Gordon (who happens to be the closest thing the Galaxy have to a target forward) and Joseph Ngwenya will heal soon. They might not be candidates for the MLS All-Star team, but they at least add some size and variety to the Los Angeles attack.
This approach may not be as sexy as moving Donovan into the midfield, but the reality is that in the long-term, Sampson has no other choice, especially since the day of reckoning that is May 10 will arrive shortly. That's when Donovan -- and perhaps teammate Chris Albright -- will depart for this summer's World Cup and miss at least eight games.
That's why it makes more sense for Sampson to persist, at least for the moment, with the lineup that he fielded in the first two matches. When Donovan leaves, this team will need to find ways to win without him, which means countering the defensive adjustments that opponents have made. Putting Donovan in midfield only delays that process. And successfully navigating that course just might provide the spark the Galaxy need.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org