It's time to get back to playing soccer. After a string of bad form and jersey controversy to distract the fans this week, everyone around Columbus Crew SC would likely love to get a positive performance on Saturday to lift some of the recent doldrums.
The Los Angeles Galaxy come to Columbus and MAPFRE Stadium dealing with doldrums of their own. L.A. has often been a slow starter, but there's a sense that a sluggish first half may be harder to shake this season. How much of a difference will Steven Gerrard's insertion into the lineup next month really make?
What's going on with the Galaxy? Rather than try to break it down for you myself, I'll defer to this excellent piece over at LAG Confidential. It's worth your time to check it out.
I'll focus more on exactly what everything means for Saturday's matchup.
A BUSY L.A. LINEUP
A host of injuries, international callups and Bruce Arena's search for the right lineup has led to a wheel of misfortune for an attack that has struggled. Before talking about who might take the field against Crew SC on Saturday, here's who we know won't: Robbie Keane (Int'l), A.J. DeLaGarza (Int'l), Bradford Jamieson (Int'l). Then there are the injured, who I can't say for sure won't play this week but who didn't play last week: Dan Gargan, Robbie Rogers, Jose Villarreal.
It sounds like Rogers is close to coming back, and could make his return against his former club. I don't know the status of Gargan (groin) or Villarreal (shoulder), though a groin injury can be a nagging issue.
Then there's the question of Gyasi Zardes, who just started and went 74 minutes for the U.S. National Team in a Wednesday game against Germany. It's not so much the playing time that would cause an issue as the overseas travel. I don't know what his availability might be, but it's hard to see him starting.
That's a whole lot of absences.
Keane is one of the most explosive players in the league and Zardes is a constant concern for defenses, so without them a struggling offense seems unlikely to get better.
What we will see is a center back pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo. Those two are a big reason Los Angeles is among the best teams in the league in the air (fourth in aerials won per game; allow only 31% of danger zone shots off crosses, which is sixth best in the league).
Gargan and Rogers would be a first-choice pairing at fullback, but it seems unlikely they both play. Rookie Oscar Sorto has been a fill-in, with midfielder Baggio Husidic also filling in at left back at times.
We also know for sure that Juninho will be in the middle of the field. He's been one of the steadiest box-to-box midfielders in MLS for years. Recently, Arena has gone with Mika Vayrynen as the other central midfielder.
Stefan Ishizaki is also a given on the right side as the attacking force for the Galaxy. The left side is likely either Husidic (probably a better defensive option if Arena chooses to play conservatively against a possession-happy Crew SC) or the more attack-minded Nacho Maganto, who has started to settle in to the side a bit more.
If both Zardes and Villarreal can't go up top, it's a likely pairing of Alan Gordon and Edson Buddle. Gordon is not pretty but has been effective and leads the team in goals with four. Buddle, well, there's a reason he's about the fifth option up top for L.A. He's no longer the player he was in his first stint with the Galaxy, or even the player he was with Columbus.
HOW THEY PLAY
It's been a mixed campaign from Arena's group. Less possession-minded than last year's group that featured a healthy Keane, Landon Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas, the Galaxy find themselves in the middle of the league in PScore, which isn't necessarily a good thing for generating points in the standings.
The club has had greater amounts of possession in recent weeks though, and is actually fifth in MLS with 52.7 percent possession on the season. That's a little misleading, though. A look at game-by-game possession numbers shows that Los Angeles tends to win the possession battle against teams that generally concede it, while losing that statistical see-saw against teams who like to possess the ball. In other words, L.A. has not consistently imposed its will on matches.
Regardless of which way they play, they've lacked a killer instinct. The Galaxy are middle of the pack in passing percentage and key passes, and have struggled to create opportunities in the best areas of the field. The result is just 10.6 shots per game (17th in MLS) and just three shots on target per game. That means L.A. has put only 28.3 percent of its already low shot total on net, and that's a pretty bad rate.
When Los Angeles is attacking, Ishizaki is the main creative force, leading the team with 2.5 key passes per game (that's 32 percent of the team's key passes). He's seventh in the league in key passes, a good percentage of which are crosses. He is the reason L.A. is heavily right-sided in the attack — its 38-percent right-sidedness is fifth in MLS.
Juninho is the engine in the midfield, leading the team with a .124 touch percentage, and isn't afraid to bomb a long shot toward goal.
The team tries to get balls to the head of Gordon or to find Zardes on runs into the box. When Villareal is up top he provides more creative intent than any of the other strikers.
The Galaxy fullbacks also get into the attack. Converted wide attacker Rogers is actually second on the team in touch percentage at .121, while even rookie Oscar Sorto stays involved at .112.
The center backs aren't afraid to play balls forward and try to find attacking players down the field.
WHAT THE CREW MUST DO
These are two teams who would really like to find some stable ground. It's also an opportunity for Columbus to get back to controlling the game. Certainly the Galaxy have the ability to win the possession battle, but the trends seem to indicate that Arena will play conservatively and try to maintain defensive shape against a team he knows will want the ball, especially on the road.
It should be an interesting strength-vs.-strength matchup between the Black & Gold's cross-heavy attack and a Los Angeles defense that defends balls in the air well.
Despite the fact that L.A. has allowed the second-least shots per game in the league (just 10.0 spg), it has also allowed more shots off fast attacking moves than anyone in MLS. It's possible to catch the fullbacks up the field and Leonardo and Gonzalez can be beat at pace. It's also important to note that Sorto has shown promise but has been exposed at times. Crew SC will need to take advantage of his inexperience. That would seem like an easier task if Justin Meram is in the lineup, but it seems unlikely he'll start after flying back from an Iraq National Team appearance on Thursday. Can Kristinn Steindorsson put in a better performance a week after Columbus failed to exploit a weakness at right back?
Defensively, the obvious answer is no sloppy giveaways and no mindless mistakes. A return to a back four of Hector Jimenez, Michael Parkhurst, Emanuel Pogatetz and Waylon Francis seems likely, so there is no excuse for bad communication or poor positioning. Gordon will be good for a headed goal or two if the defense allows as much space in the box as they have at times lately.
The good news for the Crew SC defense is that Keane won't be playing and Zardes may not see a ton of minutes.
The key will be, to reference an old coaching cliche, forcing the Galaxy to beat them — the Black & Gold cannot beat themselves. L.A. has struggled to unlock defenses, so forcing them to do so may put them in a position they're not real comfortable in.
Other points of focus: keep an eye on Juninho making late runs to the top of the box, where he can lash the ball into the back of the net, and avoid fouling in dangerous areas. Targets like Gordon and Gonzalez are dangerous to defend in the box.
This appears to be a matchup that the Black & Gold can capitalize on. There will be a good home crowd against a team that hasn't been potent. We are all aware of how Crew SC has struggled against teams that are efficient, even if not overbearing. Efficient the Galaxy are not.
Of course, this is MLS and nobody should ever count out Arena, so it wouldn't be shocking to see L.A. figure things out come Saturday. Last year these two teams met late in the season at MAPFRE Stadium and a 4-1 Columbus win signaled a move into a very strong stretch run. The Black & Gold don't want to let Los Angeles return the favor.