It’s make or break for Columbus Crew SC.
In the final stretch of the MLS season, a three-game homestand pops up just when the Black & Gold need a string of strong results. That stretch opens when the LA Galaxy travel to MAPFRE Stadium for a midweek contest on Wednesday.
Despite the fact Crew SC currently sits above the playoff red line, there is a lot of heat coming from other teams with more games left to play, so Columbus must rack up some points if it hopes to see the postseason.
Here’s a look at some things that matter in a key game against the Galaxy...
At a Glance
Record: 6-12-5 (9th in the West, 23 points, 1.0 ppg)
Everyone knows that LA is struggling this season, but a look at their form highlights how truly dire the situation is: winless in the last eight games, taking a point from only one of those. The Galaxy have been an anomaly, going 1-7-4 at home but 5-5-1 on the road, matching Toronto FC and New York City FC for the most road wins in MLS.
Goal leader: Romain Alessandrini (8)
Assist leader: Alessandrini (7)
Series history: Los Angeles leads 12-11-3
It’s been a long nine months for the Galaxy since Bruce Arena was hired to take over the U.S. Men’s National Team last November.
Curt Onalfo was hired from LA Galaxy II to take over the big club, prompting a lot of questions about why the club went in such a low-key direction. Whatever the reason, those questions turns out to be worthwhile as Onalfo was never able to get his team to jell — a conglomeration of pieces that don’t all fit together doesn’t help — and ultimately lost the locker room. His tenure will likely be most remembered for the first-half substitution of designated player Jelle Van Damme, who recently left the team.
Sigi Schmid now has three games under his belt as head coach (again) in LA, and the results have been no better, with just one point out of a possible nine. There have been some moments of better defensive organization, but not enough consistency in that area, and on the other side of the field the attack has been bad. The long-term absence of Sebastian Lletget has definitely hurt LAG.
Despite being middle of the pack in many offensive statistical categories, the Galaxy are in the bottom third of MLS in goals scored and is second from the bottom in goals scored from open play (15).
Under Schmid, the squad seems to favor a 4-2-3-1 formation, but has changed things up even in a small sample size, playing variations of a 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 at various points.
The absence of Giovanni Dos Santos due to a hamstring injury is a big blow for LA. He has played as a free-role attacker, typically acting as a deep striker, and has been the best passer on a team that’s struggled to link up in the final third.
Without GDS or Jermaine Jones, who is out with a toe injury (check his social media for a graphic view of said injury), the Galaxy may be more likely to line up in a 4-4-2, and Jonathan Dos Santos will be tasked with more heavy lifting going forward.
Gyasi Zardes is the main forward up top. He has been a disappointment in his first season as “the” guy, rather than being able to play off of Robbie Keane. The loss of Keane would be an adjustment for any player in the world, but Zardes has looked like a tweener — not quite a wide player but also without the instincts or finishing ability in the box to be a true No. 9.
Columbus fans are familiar with backup striker Jack McInerney, who continues to look the part but hasn’t figured out how to consistently score goals.
Right winger Romain Alessandrini has been a revelation for the Galaxy. For all that’s gone wrong this season for LA, the Frenchman has gone very right. He leads the team in goals and assists. He’s the reason that 40 percent of LA’s attacking build comes on the right side of the field. Watch for overloads there.
On the left wing, Emmanuel Boateng provides pace.
In defensive midfield, Jonathan Dos Santos recently arrived to try to shore things up. His presence gives LA a more versatile deep-lying player and improves distribution from that position. The other D-mids — Joao Pedro and Jermaine Jones — have not been great moving the ball around, and it has hurt LA’s transition (though we all know Jones can sometimes be a one-man transition). In just a short time, JDS has already put himself in the top tier in MLS in key passes per 96 minutes (2.98).
Defense has been an issue all season, as LA has allowed 13.9 shots per game, the fifth-highest number in MLS. (That stat does not directly correlate to results, but a look at the numbers makes it clear there is some connection.)
The goalkeeper play of Brian Rowe and Clement Diop hasn’t helped matters.
Notes from last week
LA did not have a game on the weekend, so it is coming into Columbus fresh after a week and a half off.
The Galaxy do have to turn around, travel back to California and ready for a rivalry game with the San Jose Earthquakes four days later, so it’s unclear how much roster rotation we’ll see from LA. Due to injuries and the like, the Galaxy have often not had all their stars on the field at the same time, so that would be nothing new to LAG.
Two and a half weeks ago, it was in a spectacle of a game against Portland. Things started well for the Galaxy, but after scoring early LAG offered little offensive threat and ultimately moved to a 3-5-2 but failed to break through.
Last time out, Los Angeles hosted NYCFC, posting better possession and launching 21 shots but only putting five on frame, and Sean Johnson stopped them all.
Ultimately, the Galaxy were undone by some nice work from NYC left wing Jonathan Lewis and (another) moment of greatness from David Villa. Of course, Crew SC doesn’t have David Villa (but it does have Justin Meram, who has conjured up magic of his own on occasion).
Here’s what LA looked like against NYCFC:
Giovanni Dos Santos did not play in this one, and you see the heavy wing tilt, with Jonathan dos Santos often driving high up the field to keep ball movement going.
It’s also clear that the Galaxy lacked the ability to break things down in the final third, settling for long balls into the box.
Figure out the defensive midfield — This could be problematic for Columbus, as Alessandrini likes to cut inside and the D-mids are all willing to make the trailing run. The Galaxy are also third in the league in shots from outside the box (44 percent).
Cleaning up the central channel in front of the 18-yard box is going to be critical. The problem is that Artur is a question mark after being a late scratch against Orlando City SC because of a hamstring issue. It’s arguable that his presence in that game could have/would have altered the result. His replacement, Mohammed Abu, missed a tackle that led to Orlando’s game-tying goal on Saturday, and poor positioning led to one of OCSC’s best opportunities of the game. Fair or not, these are the kind of things fans are remembering Abu for, and CCSC can’t afford them on Wednesday.
- Stay organized defensively — There are talented pieces on the field for LA, but they haven’t yet figured out how to make it all click. If the Black & Gold can remain disciplined defensively as a team, it may be enough to keep the Galaxy from getting good looks at goal, because LAG has often relied on the spectacular to generate goals, rather then regularly being able to break down defenses.
- Use all dimensions of the field — I mentioned the Galaxy’s defensive organization earlier. This late in the season nobody is really a “young” player any more, but LA’s back line is peppered with guys who are not veterans and whose names you wouldn’t know if you aren’t paying attention: Dave Romney, Daniel Steres, Nathan Smith. The one you do know — Ashley Cole — is 36 years old and wants to be involved in the attack. Portland had a lot of success pushing and pulling LA’s defense around, opening up gaps to attack. Columbus has to move the ball both vertically — be ready to counter quickly and aggressively — and touch line to touch line to manipulate the Galaxy and create lanes.
- Defend set pieces — As mentioned before, LAG has struggled to score from open play. Its nine set-piece goals is pretty good, though. That’s a product of big targets like Joao Pedro, Jones and Steres, who has three goals as a center back. And there is a long list of guys who can really hit a dead ball: Alessandrini, GDS, JDS. There’s no use in doing all the right things during open play only to concede a couple of set-piece goals. Columbus has to stay aware and avoid ball-watching in these scenarios.
This is a winnable game for Columbus, but LA is a team that, for whatever reason, is a tough opponent when it is on the road. And there are certainly players in a Galaxy uniform who can conjure up a moment of magic and change a game.
Any excuse to break this out again:
It’s not clear exactly who won’t be available for Crew SC, but we know the club will be shorthanded — at the very least, Harrison Afful is out with a red card suspension.
This game begins a three-game home stand in which the Black & Gold all but must take nine points away, with Montreal breathing down their neck in the playoff race, Atlanta United unbeaten in six games and with a whopping four games in hand and a bevy of other teams still technically within striking distance.
Here’s a guess at how the teams may line up on Wednesday: