Saturday night was the season and home opener of the 2014 edition of the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy opened the season against the team that ousted them from the playoffs last year – Real Salt Lake. Prior to last season’s early exit from the playoffs, the Galaxy had won the previous two MLS Cup Championships. But those championships were won with David Beckham, who left MLS after the 2012 season.
The Galaxy, led by Head Coach and General Manager Bruce Arena, made several moves in the offseason to strengthen the team. However, they were somewhat constrained in what they could do by the fact that they already have three Designated Players (DP) under contract.
Major League Soccer, having learned the lessons from the demise of the North American Soccer League, has a strict salary cap for all teams in the league to keep player salaries in some type of parity with revenues. However the league recognized that to grow the game in the US, big name players would be needed to increase interest. So when the opportunity to bring David Beckham to MLS arose, the league created the Designated Player rule in 2007. Under the DP rule at that time, each team was allowed to sign one player and have any salary above a certain level not count against the salary cap.
After the success with Beckham, MLS has expanded the DP rule over time to the point where today each team is allowed to have up to three DP’s. And as of the start of the 2014 season, every team has at least one DP. The Galaxy, as would be expected, have the maximum of three: 1) Landon Donovan – the face of the Galaxy, the soon-to-be all-time MLS goals leader, and the greatest American soccer player ever; 2) Robbie Keane – the captain of the Irish national team and 2013 MLS MVP finalist and 3) Omar Gonzales – one of the best, if not the best, defender in MLS and new mainstay for the US National Team.
The Galaxy signed Gonzales to a DP contract in 2013 to fill the DP spot that was vacated by Beckham. So in this offseason with all three DP’s set, the options were somewhat limited. But the Galaxy did add some interesting parts with big forwards Samuel (on loan from a Brazilian team) and 6’5″ Canadian Rob Friend and midfielders Stefan Ishizaki and Baggio Husidic.
But for me, the biggest move made by the Galaxy was the creation of LA Galaxy II. The LA Galaxy II (or Los Dos, as they are starting to be called) will play in the United Soccer League. Essentially, this will be a minor league team for the senior Galaxy team. Southern California is a great hotbed for up-and-coming soccer talent and the Galaxy have signed a lot of young talent. In watching the Galaxy last year, it looked like Bruce Arena was torn between coaching for the present and getting minutes for the young players to prepare for the future. Now with the Galaxy II having its own full season, Bruce can coach the Galaxy to win now and help guide the Galaxy II in developing the Galaxy stars of the future.
So after a long offseason wait, at a little after 7:30 we were finally watching real soccer again. The Galaxy started strongly. Gyasi Zardes looked especially fast. He was able to dribble through the defense and put the ball in dangerous positions.
Robbie Keene seems fully recovered from his Achilles tendon surgeries. If the ball is in the air and he is covered one-on-one, more likely than not, he will make the defender look silly. He can stop the ball with his chest or foot, or he can tap it past the defender and spin past him to head down the pitch with the ball.
Samuel had a strong start in his first MLS game. Midway through the first half, he caused a collective gasp in the entire stadium when, as he was being marked by two defenders, he stepped over the ball and flipped it behind his back over his head and the heads of the defenders and rushed past them. He was fouled in the process to create a scoring free kick situation. But all around the section I was in, fans were turning to each other to check that we all saw what we thought we saw. We’re all looking forward to some more flair from Samuel.
But even with all that, there was no scoring in the first half. The Galaxy has two tremendous scoring chances, but Keane missed a volley in traffic to an open net and hit the post later in the first half. Everything else was stopped by RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
RSL did have two scoring chances of their own in the first half, but Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo lived up to his “Superman” nickname with fantastic saves as well.
So even though the Galaxy dominated the first half, it ended 0-0, and in the stands we were reminding ourselves that we were watching what are probably the two best goalkeepers in MLS.
The second half continued along the same trajectory, with the exception that RSL were getting some counterattacks downfield with Joao Plata. Plata is one of the fastest players in MLS, and several times he was being marked man-to-man by Gonzales, who towers over him by at least eight inches. While that’s not the matchup Galaxy fans want to see on a regular basis, Omar was able to hold his own in that matchup.
Someone did breakthrough and unfortunately, it was RSL in the 80th minute, when Plata received a through ball in the box and put it past Penedo, who had no chance. StubHub, which up until that point had enjoyed the show by the Galaxy and were awaiting the inevitable goal by LA, was deflated. As the time on the clock ticked away, fans started heading for the exit. But, into the third minute of extra time, Rob Friend went up for a ball in the air in the box and had his legs taken out from under him by an RSL defender and the referee signaled a penalty kick for the Galaxy. While a draw was not what we wanted when the game started, at this point we would all be glad to see the goal and take the point in the standings.
Robbie Keane takes the penalties for LA. He stepped up to the ball, did a slight hesitation step and peeked to see which way Rimando was going. If he did see which way Rimando went, then he wasn’t able to change his leg patch quickly enough and he kicked the ball the same way as Rimando dove. Rimando deflected the ball over the end line and the last Galaxy threat of the night was over.
The Galaxy lost their home opener. The only other teams in the Western Conference that didn’t get a point on the opening weekend were San Jose and Colorado, and they were off for the week. The Western Conference is going to be tough and dropping points at home will be painful.
But, the statistics of the game show how well the Galaxy did play – outshot RSL 20-8 with nine shots on goal. Rimando was spectacular and go some luck as well with the post stopping a sure goal. The new guys look like they have been integrated and will only get more in the flow. Gyasi Zardes showed why many experts are predicting him to be a breakout star this year. This team will score and this team will win many games.
As far as MLS goes, the Galaxy are off until March 22nd when they head to Rio Tinto Stadium to play this same RSL team – not an easy way to start the season. It would not be shocking now to see the Galaxy start the season 0-2.
But in the meantime, the Galaxy have to prepare for the CONCACAF Champions’ League (CCL) quarterfinal two leg match with the Xolos of Club Tijuana with the home portion of that leg happening Wednesday night. More about the CCL in the post after that game.