The slimmest of margins can make a huge difference. The 2018 LA Galaxy were a reminder of that.
A rollercoaster of a year ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Galaxy last fall, as they blew a two-goal lead on the final day of the regular season to lose, 3-2, at home. The stunning and agonizing defeat dropped them below the red line in the Western Conference, costing the club a return to the playoffs by a measly point and leaving both officials and players to ponder just what exactly went wrong in that decisive moment and over the course of the entire campaign.
While a complete overhaul could have been the offseason approach taken after finishing without a playoff appearance for the second straight year, the Galaxy opted to keep their roster largely as is this winter. What they changed, however, was the man leading the charge, and the belief from within is that their well-known and respected new head coach can maximize the team’s potential and start bringing the Galaxy back to the top of the league.
Here is a closer look at the LA Galaxy heading into the 2019 season:
LA GALAXY SEASON PREVIEW
2018 FINISH: 7th place in West (13-12-9, 48 points)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Juninho, Diego Polenta, Uriel Antuna, Matt Lampson
KEY LOSSES: Ashley Cole, Joao Pedro, Michael Ciani, Baggio Husidic
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Guillermo Barros Schelotto
The Galaxy may not have brought in many roster reinforcements this offseason, but the one very notable piece they did add was their new head coach. Schelotto was brought on board this winter to bring out the best in the considerable attacking talent on the club’s roster and also to fix a leaky defense that practically cost the Galaxy a return to the playoffs a year ago.
A resume that includes titles, coaching Argentina heavyweight Boca Juniors, and playing for the Columbus Crew suggests that Schelotto should be well-equipped to both handle the personalities on this star-studded LA team and MLS’s unique challenges. What tactics he has his side adopt is going to be just as important as his man-management, though, and will determine whether the Galaxy can get back to being the respectable contending force that they once were.
PRESSURE IS ON: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Having proven in 2018 that he still has top-level skill and that innate inner drive to succeed, Ibrahimovic enters the new season with practically zero questions about his ability to produce and a Designated Player contract that has handsomely rewarded him for last year’s exploits. It is vital for the Galaxy, however, that Ibrahimovic replicates the type of form that saw him scores 22 goals and deliver 10 assists, especially since they are in the final stages of selling their only other proven scoring threat in Ola Kamara.
Any drop-off in production from Ibrahimovic would likely hurt the Galaxy and a significant one could doom their campaign, so it is imperative that the Swedish striker continues to terrorize opposing defenses in the same manner that he did last season.
Failing to contend for the MLS Cup, let alone reach the playoffs, is near catastrophic when you are the Galaxy. The club has a long history of success, but the past two years have seen it suffer a nasty fall from grace that has included several coaching changes, a roster overhaul, and stiff competition for Los Angeles’ attention from a shiny, new crosstown rival.
The Galaxy think they have the recipe to begin correcting things at last, though. Schelotto was brought on board after most recently coaching Boca Juniors because of his winning pedigree and familiarity with MLS. Schelotto may be inheriting a roster that has holes and that he did not construct, but it is still one that is loaded with talent and untapped potential.
You need not look any further than up top at the hulking Ibrahimovic to see the envious type of quality the Galaxy have. The newly-appointed captain and star forward was downright dominant in his first year in the league in 2018, and expectations are once again high for him this season. Ibrahimovic has to produce for the Galaxy attack to be as deadly as it was a year ago, though the attacking burden he carries could be significantly reduced if Schelotto can get the oft-injured Giovani dos Santos to stay healthy and turn in consistent performances.
Even if dos Santos is once again unable to perform up to his potential, the Galaxy still should have enough other weapons to inflict damage on even the stingiest defenses. Wide options Romain Alessandrini, Sebastian Lletget, and Emmanuel Boateng all boast different skillsets that are capable of making a difference, and youngster Uriel Antuna, one of the few new players added this winter, also seems like a potential regular contributor after arriving in high regard via a loan from Manchester City.
The Galaxy back line, on the other hand, needs much more work. The club surrendered a whopping 64 goals in 2018, a total that was only two less than they scored. There is a key addition in Uruguayan centerback Diego Polenta who is expected to bolster the defense, but fellow projected starters Rolf Feltscher, Daniel Steres, and Jorgen Skjelvik were all part of the shoddy defense that routinely had so many problems a year ago.
How Schelotto gets them to make vast improvements and turn into a formidable back four remains to be seen, but getting more protection from central midfield might be a solution. The Galaxy brought back feisty veteran Brazilian Juninho for another stint in LA, and he alongside Jonathan dos Santos should provide for more muscle in the middle of the park. Perry Kitchen is another steely option that could be used in tandem with the talented Mexican.
Goalkeeper is another spot that comes with question marks. Despite a change of scenery from the San Jose Earthquakes, David Bingham continued to struggle in 2018 in LA. The Galaxy chose not to make a serious upgrade at that position, but brought over Matt Lampson as insurance. Bingham is likely to once again be the starter for the Galaxy at the start of this campaign and he should only benefit if the defense improves, but a change in between the pipes could be in the cards if he keeps making errors and performing poorly.
All in all, the Galaxy are not very different than a season ago. Schelotto is, of course, at the helm now and injecting new life into the group, but the roster still looks unbalanced. The defense does not seem to have as much quality or depth as the potent attack and goalkeeping remains an area of concern.
The Galaxy should nonetheless still be able to reach the playoffs so long as Ibrahimovic can stay healthy and produce up top. More than that, though, might be asking too much of this group.