The LA Galaxy officially began their 2016 campaign on Wednesday night with five new starters, and a total of eight players in the starting lineup who were not members of the club this time last year.
Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard were both added as designated players in the middle of last season. Three veteran internationals, Dutchman Nigel de Jong, Englishman Ashley Cole and Belgian Jelle Van Damme were added in the offseason, as was seasoned American goalkeeper Dan Kennedy. All six players started tonight, as did new signing Emanuel Boateng, a Ghanaian by birth who caught the eye of the Galaxy front office while playing for UC Santa Barbara before spending a year in Sweden with Helsingborgs IF.
Toss in team captain Robbie Keane, an Irishman, and AJ de la Garza, who plays internationally for Guam, and the Galaxy have the makings of a respectable multicultural stew. But considering the game is soccer, and not cooking, the Galaxy had an extraordinary task in front of them: bringing together an almost entirely new team in a little more than a month, and starting with an CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against the defending Liga MX Clausura champion, Santos Laguna.
Lesser men might blink, but Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena has made a career out of stocking his rosters with veterans, players he feels he can trust to gel quickly and efficiently in a short amount of time.
“For our first time out, I thought we played well” said Arena after Wednesday’s 0-0 draw against Santos Laguna. “It’s not easy. We’ve only played 90 minutes together this year. So I was pleased with that.”
The three new international veterans all produced positive contributions in their first match in Los Angeles. Van Damme nearly scored on a sharp header off a Dos Santos corner kick in the first minute. While he may not have gotten the goal, Van Damme gave Galaxy supporters a very quick reason to start to forget the loss of beloved defender Omar Gonzalez, who left the Galaxy this winter after seven years to ply his trade for Pachuca in Mexico.
“In general we have a good feeling about this game” said Van Damme after the match. “We should have scored. I don’t know what happened. It went fast. But when I headed it, I saw it going in. But it didn’t.”
Fellow defender Ashley Cole also got involved in the attack, attempting a cheeky volley using the outside of his left foot from the edge of the area. Cole impressed in the back as well, often relying on foot skills to release the ball from the Galaxy back third and start the attack.
The stout play of De Jong may have quietly made the most difference in keeping the Galaxy in the match. Playing off the shoulder of midfield legend Steven Gerrard, De Jong consistently pressured the robust Santos attack into mistakes, and repeatedly found space to make himself an available outlet for the LA offense, as the Galaxy strived to find rhythm in their attack.
“I think it was a pretty solid performance to be honest, from our side” said De Jong after the match. “It was our first 90 minutes together, we’re still jelling. It was our first game, and it was a solid performance. The only thing missing was a goal.”
With so many new pieces, veteran or not, it presents the few remaining Galaxy old-timers with their own unique challenges. De la Garza is now the ranking member of the Galaxy, and despite still being only 28 years old, has now played in close to 200 games in a Galaxy shirt. That’s about 199 more than half the guys on his side tonight.
“We have, what, seven new guys tonight? It’s always tough, coming into a tournament like this, just the chemistry, but I thought we played pretty well,” said De La Garza when asked about his new teammates. “I thought we had good chemistry tonight. It’s a positive that we kept the zero tonight.”
“I thought for the most part it was solid for our first time out” Arena concluded when asked about the team’s chances moving forward. “It’s still early in the year. Our team is not going to change much between now and Tuesday. It’s too early to evaluate, but I think we have the makings of a good team.”
Still, the Galaxy have much work to do if they’re going to advance to the Champions League semifinal. They did not create too many quality chances, did not score, and have still only played together for a month. And only six of the starters have played professionally in North America for less than a year. Now they head to Torreon, Mexico, a city not known for welcoming tourists.
When asked how he felt about playing in Mexico, Van Damme summed it up succinctly.
“I don’t know.” the tall Belgian said with a smile. “I’ve never been to Mexico.”