Best in L.A.? Not the Galaxy
Much ado, of course, over the Western Conference standings five weeks into the Major League Soccer season, with the Galaxy -- defending champion and, after a couple of big offseason additions, odds-on favorites to repeat -- sitting at the bottom, ninth place, a dozen points off the lead.
It's too early to panic, head coach Bruce Arena insists, with seven months until the playoffs arrive, but it requires minimal insight to see that the best soccer team in L.A. at the moment isn't the one everyone expected.
The Galaxy is 1-3-0 in league play, 1-4-1 in all competitive matches and have dropped three games at Home Depot Center after losing none last year in 25 outings.
That home win, an impressive victory three weeks ago over a flailing D.C. United side, is about the only thing L.A. has over cross-stadium rival Chivas USA at the moment. The Goats (2-3-0) haven't won in three home games, but Saturday night's 2-1 comeback triumph at Portland was their second victory in as many away matches.
Where the Galaxy has struggled to defend without star backliner Omar Gonzalez, seen its star-studded midfield overrun (never more so than in Saturday's 1-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City and last weekend's 3-1 defeat at home to New England) and has yet to build any real chemistry up top, Chivas has been superb defensively and for the first time showed signs during a scintillating second-half performance in Portland that its attack, more or less nonexistent in the first four games, is starting to find its footing.
Chivas has been in every game it's played and, with a little better fortune (and a lot better finishing), could be 5-0-0. It gave Sporting K.C. a better battle than the Galaxy did, beat a Real Salt Lake team (in Sandy, Utah) that toppled the Galaxy (at Home Depot Center), and deserved points in 1-0 losses to MLS Cup runner-up Houston and Vancouver, which hadn't lost until Saturday.
The moods surrounding the teams are telling.
The Galaxy, a mostly veteran group that's mostly been together four seasons, is without confidence, uncertain what's going on at the back (although, one costly error aside, the backline defense was pretty good in K.C.) and unable to create a whole lot up front (despite Robbie Keane's impressive efforts). Landon Donovan and David Beckham haven't been at full strength, the role players who contributed so much in last year's trophy runs are off their game, and each encounter seems to bring with it intractable challenges.
The Goats, in stage two of a rebuild begin with Robin Fraser took charge 15 months ago, are meanwhile brimming with belief after shaking off a poor first half in Portland and scoring two super goals -- headers by Alejandro Moreno and Nick LaBrocca from Ryan Smith crosses -- for a second late victory.
As Peter Vagenas said following Chivas' opening game, the loss to Houston: “I'm more excited now about this team than I was 24 hours ago. I think we have character, we have heart we fight … at some points it was disjointed, but at the end of the day we were tough, we were organized, we fought, and I promise you it's only going to get better.”
It has, and all of those qualities -- the character, the fight -- have been revealed in every match. There are questions about the Galaxy's character that need answers, but none about Chivas'.
How bad has the Galaxy's start been? They've suffered a third league loss earlier in the campaign just once in a 17 seasons, when they started 0-3 in 1997. One of those losses were in a shootout, the tiebreaker mechanism MLS used its first four seasons, and would have counted as a tie today. That team lost its third game sans shootout in its sixth game.
Since Arena took charge, L.A. hasn't lost three MLS matches until the 14th (2009), 19th (2010) and 24th (2011) games on their schedule. Only 11 times in 75 matches before this season had a Galaxy team lost at Home Depot Center -- that's all games, including friendlies and away games against Chivas. They're 1-3-0 in 2012, and they've conceded nine goals in those four games. Last year they gave up eight goals in 17 home league games and 11 in 23 games of all stripes.
DEFENSIVE PLAN: Arena was asked about how injuries have impacted L.A. this year, and he addressed speculation that he should be looking to trade for a center back or sign someone outside the country to take Gonzalez's spot in the lineup. “We have two center backs that we’re trying to get back in Leonardo and Gonzalez,” he said. “The league is not set up where you can just be bringing in players left and right on your senior roster [because of the salary cap and roster-size restrictions]. You have to deal with injuries that are long-term, and if they’re rostered players, there’s nothing you can do about it. We’re gonna wait to get our players back and keep working with [rookie Tommy Meyer], and he’ll get better with more games.”
WORTH NOTING: Real Salt Lake (5-1-0) is atop the Western Conference following shutout victories Wednesday over Montreal and Saturday over Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado. The Utahns also vaulted over Sporting Kansas City (5-0-0) in the Supporters' Shield standings: both teams have 15 points and a plus-seven goal difference, but RSL's 11 goals trump K.C.'s eight. The teams meet next weekend in Kansas City. ... K.C. is the first team to get full points from its first five games since the Galaxy in 1996, but L.A.'s 1998 team also won its first five games en route to a 9-0 start. The opening-day win was in a shootout. ... The Galaxy have gone at least 10 games before their first loss four times, in 1996 (13), 1998 (10), 2000 (12) and 2010 (13). ... Chivas can build on its success against the league two worst teams the next two weeks. The Rojiblancos play next Saturday at Toronto FC (0-4-0) and at home the following week against Philadelphia (0-3-1). ... The Galaxy are home next Saturday against Portland.