Things have not gone the way they were supposed to for the LA Galaxy. With Chicharito arriving to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, many projected the Galaxy to leap into Western Conference contention, rivaling the elites of the conference in ways they never did with Zlatan. They’ve played four games this season, though, and we have yet to see the attacking juggernaut we were supposed to.
Back in March, they drew 1-1 with the Houston Dynamo, conceding 60 percent of the possession, and then lost 1-0 to the rebuilding Vancouver Whitecaps. This month, they lost 2-1 to the Portland Timbers and 6-2 to LAFC, putting their group stage advancement in serious jeopardy.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto must unlock Chicharito
Manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto hasn’t been able to get the best out of his team. LA haven’t played with any more of an identity than they did when Zlatan was the system. Chicharito’s presence was supposed to open Schelotto’s playbook a little bit, with a striker that is willing to defend and play as part of a wider system.
The problem has been a combination of Chicharito and Schelotto. Chicharito, who missed the LAFC game due to a late knock, has struggled to finish chances and hasn’t been as much of a defensive presence as expected.
But at some point, LA has to find a way to involve Chicharito organically rather than lofting low-percentage crosses and trying to force the ball to him. Playing around a No. 9 as a focal point is a fool’s errand. The best teams run the ball through heavier-volume on-ball creators, with the forward finishing chances, connecting play, and making threatening runs.
LAFC’s use of Vela is a good model to follow
Look at LAFC, who give Carlos Vela the keys. When Bradley Wright-Phillips was scoring loads of goals for the Shield-winning Red Bulls, Jesse Marsch wasn’t force-feeding crosses to him; he was designing a complex and effective pressing system that put BWP in the best possible positions to score. The Columbus Crew with Gregg Berhalter built their whole system on the idea of making their strikers replaceable by giving them easy chances. Thus how Kei Kamara, Ola Kamara, and Gyasi Zardes each scored high volumes of goals in different years.
When your striker is really, really good, your team’s ceiling grows exponentially. Josef Martinez and Atlanta United is the best example — Martinez was so good in his role even as other players were the true creative focal points that he was the driving force behind their success.
Chicharito can be that guy for the Galaxy. He is certainly good enough. But he is not the creator. The nature of the position almost mandates that the primary creator be someone else, because forwards are the front line, with no one to theoretically pass to when they face the goal. Unless you’re going to have a Messi-style false 9 (that’s an entirely different proposition), you have to be willing to use the midfielders and wingers as the primary vehicles for creation.
Schelotto is used to Zlatan. Ibra was a unique case, a player who could be the absolute centerpiece — a guy you could loft random balls to and he would somehow generate howitzers. LA’s ceiling was always limited with him, though, because it’s hard to win when you don’t have a consistent on-ball creator from possession.
The Galaxy have players who can fill the creator role. Cristian Pavon is elite in this league, a skillful winger who is deadly when he cuts in from the flank. Sebastian Lletget is a solid box-to-box facilitator, and Sacha Kljestan is the MLS Assist King. Jonathan dos Santos being out hurts the midfield, but there should be enough talent to do more.
The key going forward is Schelotto displaying a willingness to let his team keep the ball. He has to maximize everyone, not just Chicharito. Institute more effective ideas in the final third, going beyond simply lofting the ball to Chicharito. Put Pavon and Lletget in positions to succeed, because if those guys are playing well, Chicharito is going to score goals.
They found success in the first half against LAFC by pressing centrally and corralling Bob Bradley’s midfield. Pavon had a bit too much to do — they can’t rely on him to do everything for that attack — but Lletget looked good leading the line and the Galaxy won the ball in good spots. Their defense ultimately collapsed.
To have any chance of making it through the group stage, they have to come up with three points against the Dynamo on Thursday. FiveThirtyEight has them at just a 13 percent chance at advancing.
If they’re going to unlock Chicharito’s potential, they have to expand their tactical approach and fit him in more effectively. It might help to improve the backline a little, as well.