Adjusting to life after the departure of a superstar is nothing new for the LA Galaxy, a team with a history of saying hello and goodbye to the biggest names to pass through Major League Soccer.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure left a bigger void than most though, with the Swedish star having been such a visible figurehead for the past two seasons, delivering goals as well as eyeballs with his brash and outspoken persona.
With Ibrahimovic back in Italy, the Galaxy wasted no time adding another high-profile striker in Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, a player who will struggle to match Zlatan’s goal production, but who should match his drawing power in the Los Angeles area.
There is also a feeling that the Galaxy head into the 2020 season feeling more like a team, and less like Zlatan and his back-up dancers. Hernandez has name cache, but he doesn’t suck up the oxygen in the room the way Ibrahimovic did.
The good news is that now players like Cristian Pavon, Sebastian Lletget and Aleksandar Katai will have a chance to share in the spotlight in a way that seemed hard to do when the pony-tailed legend roamed Dignity Health Sports Park.
“This year I think you’re going to see more of a team dynamic, where last year guys were looking to almost force the ball to Ibra because we knew his quality’s so good he can he can score at any moment,” Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham told SBI. “This year, you’re gonna see more of a team-first mentality.”
The Galaxy will also be trading Zlatan’s one-way attack-only approach for a more team-friendly two-way presence from Hernandez, who may not produce goals as spectacular as his predecessor, but his defensive work from the striker position is miles ahead of what Ibrahimovic provided.
“(Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto) came in the locker room the first day and said, ‘we’re a team this year we’re defending with 11 and we’re attacking with 11,” Bingham said. “It’s 11 guys on the field. I think this is going to be a more balanced attack and definitely more balance defensively. And I think you’re going to see a lot more people get involved on the stat sheet whether it be goals or with assists than the last few years.”
In 2019, his first season in charge, Schelotto felt a bit like a spectator in the Zlatan circus. In 2020, Schelotto has had more involvement in the molding of the squad, and had another preseason to implement his philosophy.
First and foremost, the Galaxy must improve a defense that was a shambles in 2019. They allowed 59 goals last season, more than any other playoff team and a total that only four teams surpassed.
“The message this year is, as a group, we need to be better all around defensively,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget told SBI. “We know we’re going to score goals. We know we’re going to find the back of the net somehow, we have creative players, but if we don’t work hard on the other side, I think we’ll be in trouble just like last year.
“We can’t win every game 4-3.”
Another storyline to watch will be how Schelotto integrates young players into the mix. Teenagers Julian Araujo and Efrain Alvarez are highly-regarded prospects who should find larger roles in 2020.
If Schelotto can solidify his defense, integrate some youngsters, and set up an attack that keeps Hernandez stocked with service, then the Galaxy could make a push at an MLS Cup, though the uncertainty surrounding the back-line keeps the Galaxy out of the top tier of title contenders heading into the season.
Here is a closer look at the LA Galaxy:
2020 LA Galaxy Preview
2019 Finish: 6th in Western Conference (16-15-3; lost to LAFC in Western Conference semifinal)
Key Acquisitions: Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, Sacha Kljestan, Aleksandr Katai, Emiliano Insua, Nick DePuy
Key Losses: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Uriel Antuna, Diego Polenta, Dave Romney,
Newcomer to Watch
JAVIER ‘CHICHARITO’ HERNANDEZ
The Mexican national team’s all-time leading scorer has produced goals for some of the biggest teams in the world, and although he’s coming off a disappointing stint at Sevilla, he still has the ability to be a 20-goal scorer in MLS.
“He’s a player of great quality, who will give us a lot of goals and a lot of things,” Schelotto said of Hernandez. “But we need to try to make sure we find him with service and help create chances for him.”
Hernandez is a striker who thrives in movement and good service, and he’s joining a team with some quality in midfield, with effective wingers in Pavon and Katai, as well as creative central players such as Sebastian Lletget, Sacha Kljestan, Joe Corona and Jonathan Dos Santos.
One thing Hernandez brings to the table that Ibrahimovic did not was defensive work rate from the striker position. Ibrahimovic was very much a defensive non-factor, whereas Hernandez is known for his tireless work rate, and ability to defend from the front.
Pressure Is On
When the Costa Rican national team defender arrived in 2019 it was believed he would provide a much-needed upgrade to the Galaxy defense. He was anything but, struggling badly and looking very little like the defender who parlayed a standout 2014 MLS season with the Columbus Crew into a move to Serie A.
Gonzalez was arguably one of the shakiest defenders on a bad Galaxy back-line in 2019, but he’s back in 2020 and the Galaxy need him to have a bounce-back season. Diego Polenta’s departure puts even more pressure on him to perform well to start the season, or he will risk being benched quickly in favor of impressive newcomer Nick DePuy.
If the preseason is any indication, the Galaxy are adapting well to life after Zlatan.
“They’re learning. Little by little, they are learning. They’re starting to understand each other and I see it going well,” Schelotto said. “I think the team has played some good games in preseason. We’ve played give, won three, tied one and lost one down a man for most of the match.
“I’m happy with the results, I’m happy with what we’ve seen,” Schelotto said. “I think that all the requirements are there. The way we play, and the attitude we have.”
The arrivals of Hernandez and Katai should help offset the departures of Ibrahimovic and Uriel Antuna, and the new pairing have fit in well into an attack that should still be one of the most dangerous in the league.
The strength of the Galaxy lies in the midfield, where Schelotto has a wealth of options. Jonathan Dos Santos serves as the key figure in the middle, with Perry Kitchen an option to play alongside him when Schelotto wants a more-defensive minded setup, and Joe Corona more of a two-way presence in the deeper central role.
Sebastian Lletget is the top attacking midfield option, but the arrival of veteran Sacha Kljestan gives Schelotto the option of pairing the two playmakers or pushing Lletget into a wide role when needed. Efrain Alvarez is also a candidate for a larger role after showing some very promising glimpses early in 2019.
Chicharito is the biggest name in the Galaxy attack, but you can argue Pavon is the team’s most dangerous weapon. The Argentine winger is virtually impossible to stop when he’s at his best, and can work on either wing, or even deputize as a striker if Chicharito isn’t available.
“He was definitely the missing piece at the end of last year,” Lletget said of Pavon. “I think now he’s even a little more free, this year he’ll be able to express himself even a little bit more.”
The biggest questions continue to surround the defense, where new arrival Emiliano Insua is arguably the safest bet to start among the Galaxy’s defenders. LA had brought in some good left back depth with the addition of Danilo Acosta, but he suffered a torn ACL in preseason. Insua’s experience should provide some much-needed leadership along the backline, and he helps solidify a position that became an Achilles’ Heel in 2019.
Centerback is shaping up to be a real battleground for minutes, with newcomer Nick DePuy putting together an impressive preseason to throw his name into the hat as a potential starter. Daniel Steres was arguably the team’s most reliable defender last year, but Gonzalez has the bigger resume and should be given the start of the season to prove that last year’s struggles were temporary.
At right back, veteran Rolf Feltscher could give way to teenager Julian Araujo, who is coming off his first U.S. Men’s National Team camp. Feltscher has the experience edge, but he was very much a liability defensively in 2019. Araujo is only 19, but showed real promise in his limited minutes last season, and enters the new year with the confidence gained from his first USMNT camp.
David Bingham returns as the starter in goal, and while he had his shaky moments in the midst of a barrage of chances faced, the 30-year-old is still a good goalkeeper who should benefit from an improved defense in front of him.
For Bingham, the criticisms of the Galaxy defense too often fail to take into account the fact that the team’s back-line was often left to defend against waves of attacks due to the lack of defensive support from
“Four guys can’t defend for 90 minutes and do everything. That’s not how it works in soccer,” Bingham said. “When people write all the articles, all they say is the defense is bad. Well, yeah, our defense, we need to do better, and we know that, but at the end of the day soccer is 11 guys on the field. The defensive side of the ball has a lot to do with shape in when we’re attacking the ball. And it has a lot to do with the amount of work the frontline puts on.
“Last year, we know that we we didn’t defend with 11 guys ever,” Bingham said. “We understand that and that’s, that’s how we played. This year we have 11 guys who will work for the team and I think that’s going to show a lot more this year.”
The Galaxy aren’t being talked about among the MLS Cup favorites heading into 2020, but the reality is this Galaxy team has the potential to be a serious title contender, and at the very least a more consistent team than the erratic and flawed squad we saw in 2019.
“I think you’ll see more of a team. I think you’ll see a collective group working towards one goal,” Lletget said. “Not this guy here, this guy there. I think you’ll see everybody working for each other. And I, I feel like that’s what’s going to get us the championship.”
LA Galaxy Roster
Goalkeepers: David Bingham, Eric Lopez, Justin Vom Steeg.
Defenders: Danilo Acosta, Julian Araujo, Nick DePuy, Rolf Feltscher, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Emiliano Insua, Jorgen Skjelvik, Daniel Steres, Diedie Traore.
Midfielders: Efrain Alvarez, Joe Corona, Emil Cuello, Jonathan dos Santos, Aleksandar Katai, Perry Kitchen, Sacha Kljestan, Sebastian Lletget, Jonathan Perez.
Forwards: Cameron Dunbar, Javier Hernandez, Cristian Pavon, Ethan Zubak, Gordon Wild.