The Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy are slated to face off this weekend at Providence Park. The last time they met up, the Timbers beat the Galaxy bad enough that they got a coach fired. But so far, this is not last year’s Galaxy squad.
To prep for this game, I talked to Alicia Rodriguez of LAG Confidential about what to expect in tomorrow’s matchup. (You can read the piece up on LAG Confidential where Alicia asks me questions here.)
Stumptown Footy: Last year was a difficult one for the Galaxy, but they seem to have bounced back with a solid start to this season. What stands out as different about how they’ve played this year compared to last?
Alicia Rodriguez: The biggest difference so far this season is in terms of the coaching. The Timbers dealt the final blow to Guillermo Barros Schelotto last season, who was clearly out of his depth and leading one of the most static, demoralized teams in the league. Now, Greg Vanney is in charge and it’s like a breath of fresh air. Vanney not only has a title-winning pedigree in MLS and the history as a former Galaxy player, but he’s also shown tangible ways in which good coaching can lift a team. Almost to a man, last season the players underachieved and those returning this year have basically all raised their level already.
On top of that, the roster has atrophied and leading scorer Cristian Pavón did not return this season, and Vanney has been busy, with the club turning to France to scout and signing three players already, with at least one more expected. Obviously the Galaxy acquired Jorge Villafaña, too, and signed Jonathan Bond to be the next goalkeeper and he’s off to a great start. Add to the mix Vanney is actually giving homegrown signings meaningful minutes *and* those players are contributing, and there’s plenty of reason to believe this club has turned the corner and will be substantially better than the doormats they’ve been for most of the last five years.
SF: Chicharito really struggled last year in his debut MLS season. This year he’s already got seven goals and looks infinitely better. What’s changed from last year to now?
AR: There are two main causes. The first I mentioned above, that Vanney is mostly playing a style that suits Chicharito’s strengths. There’s been a couple games in which Vanney didn’t really tailor the lineup around the Mexican and little surprise, he struggled until the coach made necessary adjustments. But by and large, Chicharito is no longer running around aimlessly for 90 minutes as the team provides him no service or sets up to not actually get the best out of him.
The other part is down to the player. Chicharito had some personal issues last year off the field, he suffered from injury for chunks of last season, and he was totally out of form. I think he was really done dirty in a lot of ways from how Schelotto set up last year and everything, but admittedly he looked awful when he got a run of games at the end of the season. In the offseason, he got serious about getting into shape, changed his diet, used his riches to hire all manner of life coach and hyperbaric chambers and so on. He really seemed to be embarrassed about his performance on the field last year and set about making it right. With the pieces in place now, he’s able to take advantage because he’s put in the work, too, and that’s a pretty cool story.
SF: The Timbers bested the Galaxy three times in four matches last regular season. What should Timbers fans expect the Galaxy to do in order to prevent similar results from happening in this first match?
AR: I’ll say that the Galaxy are still figuring things out, and they were quite leaky in the first three games of the season, so it will be interesting to see if the defense continues to hold firm as they go back out on the road. I think LA are a team that can win 3-2, but that’s not what they’re looking to do, they’d rather win games 2-0.
So I expect defense to be a priority for this game, and while the Galaxy haven’t been a counterattacking team this season, they seem to be building the connections to get in transition and look for chances and that will probably be the default objective heading into the game. At the same time, Vanney is a versatile manager (I think he and Gio Savarese share that in common) and if the game goes in a different direction, they seem to be capable of making tweaks and trying something new. Should be a good one!
Thanks again to Alicia for the chat!