April was a coming out party for Giovani dos Santos. The LA Galaxy forward scored four goals and set up two more in his last three games, helping LA collect seven points. But it’s more than just the numbers. Dos Santos has dominated games, finally looking like the player that terrorized the US defense in the 2011 Gold Cup Final, the player everyone thought the Galaxy was getting last year. Most importantly for the Galaxy, this offensive explosion helped carry the team while Robbie Keane remained sidelined with a knee injury. Keane should be back sometime in May (he was upgraded to “questionable” on the latest injury report), leaving Bruce Arena with a problem: how does he get both Keane and dos Santos on the field?
Robbie Keane is one the best players in league history. That’s essentially a fact at this point. He’s also coming off a 20 goal, eight-assist season. Translation: this dude ain’t riding the bench. Neither is dos Santos considering his recent form. But Keane and dos Santos on the same field hasn’t produced the fireworks you’d expect. Arena stuck dos Santos out wide for much of last season to accommodate Keane’s need to play centrally and the results were underwhelming; dos Santos tallied just three goals and five assists in 10 games and never looked comfortable or confident. A full offseason with the team did little to help going into 2016. Arena benched the Mexican at halftime against DC United and left him there for the next three games following a disappointing start to the season. Things got so bad, there were whispers and speculation the Galaxy would be best off cutting its losses and looking to move dos Santos in the summer window. Then Keane needed knee surgery and dos Santos got to play in the “Robbie Keane” role.
Gio has shined with more freedom, dropping into the midfield, flairing wide, floating to find pockets of space, making perfectly timed runs and finishing chances with deadly accuracy. It’s a description fitting of Robbie Keane’s game. And therein lies the problem. Keane and dos Santos both want to operate in the same space and they operate best when the team moves around them. They’re game-changers when given that creative freedom. When they play together, though, that desire to roam can end up with the two occupying the same space, throwing off the balance of the team and stagnating the attack. I think Arena’s best option is to play dos Santos and Keane together up top and hope they develop something close to what Keane and Landon Donovan had a few years ago. That duo dismantled teams with a combination of ridiculously high soccer IQ and technical skill. LA may have to weather a rough feeling-out period to get the same results and dos Santos will probably have to play more direct at times, but the payoff would be well-worth it.
It’s a long season. Injuries and fatigue happen and having quality depth is never a bad thing. Squad rotation is necessary. But when the must-win games roll around, you have to know your best XI and have a plan of attack. LA doesn’t have either yet. Don’t be surprised when Bruce Arena has his team firing on all cylinders come playoff time though. He’s made a living doing it.