The first ever LA derby kicked off in exciting fashion. A dominant start from LAFC, a roaring comeback from LA Galaxy, and a couple of world class goals from world class players created a level of excitement for soccer in Los Angeles never achieved before.
LAFC’s dominant start
LAFC’s effective counter-press is what allowed them to dominate the early minutes of the game, and ultimately led to their first goal. Benny Feilhaber and Steven Beitashour won the ball back in a promising position, and a phenomenal finish from Carlos Vela gave the visitors the lead early on in the match. Following the goal, the Galaxy midfield was able retain possession more, but they were struggling to find Emmanuel Boateng and Sebastian Lletget in space. A result of this was that Ola Kamara didn’t get any opportunities to get on the ball in the final third in the first 20 minutes. It certainly didn’t help that the Galaxy were missing the Dos Santos brothers and Roman Alessandrini, but this was also due to the fact that LAFC had an effective defensive structure. When Galaxy had possession of the ball in their own third or in the middle third, LAFC dropped into a 4-4-2 in the defensive phase with Carlos Vela and Marcos Ureña up top. Vela sometimes dropped further back to track the runs of the Galaxy midfielders. They did not have an intense high press, but their approach was organized and effective in the first half, limiting the Galaxy to just two shots in the first 45 minutes.
Here is an example of how LAFC (dark blue) forced the Galaxy (light blue) into playing route one football for the better part of the first half. Thanks to Marcos Ureña’s smart pressing and positioning, passes to Carrasco and Steres are taken out of the equation. Skjelvik is forced into either making a pass all the way back to the goalkeeper, putting Perry Kitchen in a situation in which he would almost certainly have to play a direct ball, or playing a direct ball himself. In this scenario in the 13th minute, he ended up playing a near-perfect direct ball to Ashley Cole, who laid it off to Boateng to generate a shot from outside the box. Despite the chance created, LAFC’s organization clearly caused problems for the Galaxy offense and denied them space in the center space. They were forced to play much more direct, playing 11 open play crosses in the first half and completing just one.
After the first goal, the LAFC attack stagnated a bit. The attacking trio of Vela, Rossi, and Blessing were not winning the ball back in dangerous areas and getting on the break. To counteract this, Bob Bradley swapped the positions of wingers Diego Rossi and Latif Blessing, and it was this adjustment that helped lead to the second goal. A well timed and intelligent run from Marcos Ureña dragged two defenders out of position on the counter-attack which left Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela wide open in the two-half spaces inside the penalty box. Then, it was a bit more world class quality from Carlos Vela where he made a fool of David Bingham and six other Galaxy defenders.
The third goal, much like the second, came following a change of possession in LAFC’s penalty box, followed by another phenomenal run from Marcos Ureña. Daniel Steres and David Bingham were a bit unlucky to concede the goal in the fashion that they did, but regardless, Ureña deserves a lot of credit for what he did in the first half of that game. It seems that LAFC have found the ideal forward in Ureña. He is a defensive forward that presses effectively, has the ability to hold the ball up, and makes dangerous runs to open up channels for Blessing, Vela, and Rossi.
The turning point for LA Galaxy
After Steres’ own goal, it seemed that all hope had been lost for the Galaxy. The stadium had gone silent, apart from the large LAFC away section. In the following 10 minutes, it was more of the same. The Galaxy were attempting a lot of crosses that weren’t connecting, and LAFC were waiting to pounce on the counter-attack. LAFC fans were so confident at this point, that they started cheering “olé” after each pass in the 61st minute. This was put to an end by a pass from Laurent Ciman that put Benny Feilhaber in a difficult position. Carrasco’s pressing forced Feilhaber to turn it over, and this led to a one v. one with the keeper for Sebastian Lletget who put the Galaxy on the board.
Laurent Ciman probably made the wrong decision here to pass to Feilhaber rather than to an open Moutinho on the left, but the Galaxy did a great job of collapsing on Feilhaber to win the ball back. The pressure from the central midfielders Carrasco and Kitchen was key here. This was something they were not able to do as much of in the first half. Kamara, Carrasco, and Lletget created a three v. one with Feilhaber, and that led to a turnover that changed the match.
Following the goal, Sigi Schmid made an adjustment to take off Servando Carrasco to bring on veteran Baggio Husidic. Husidic was able to come on and help the Galaxy keep and advance possession, and this was the first step towards the Galaxy gaining a firmer grasp on the game.
After Lletget’s goal, the game opened up for both sides. They exchanged chances for the next 10 minutes, and Bob Bradley brought on Eduard Atuesta to try and regain the upper hand in the midfield. Minutes later, Sigi Schmid brought on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is ultimately what changed this game.
The Zlatan Effect
Shortly after Zlatan was brought on, Chris Pontius brought the Galaxy back within a goal with a nice header. On this goal, Emmanuel Boateng was allowed by the LAFC defense to do something he had not been able to do all day – cross the ball uncontested. There were three defenders that could have easily closed him down before he entered the box, but none of them did. What followed was a nice run from Pontius to get in front of young Joao Moutinho and a great diving finish.
What happened next probably will go down as one of the marquee moments in MLS history. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a jaw-dropping goal from 36 yards out after goalkeeper Tyler Miller was left out of position after taking a free kick. By then, the match had completely opened up.
On the fourth and final goal, Ibrahimovic was left unmarked in the box despite three LAFC defenders being in the vicinity. Atuesta turned the ball over, and the Galaxy were in a good position to spring the transition. Ashley Cole was able to get in behind the defense and play a cross in to a wide open Zlatan, who finished it with ease. Unfortunately, the goal may have been offside by the tightest of margins, but the referee never bothered to check VAR and one could argue that it was too close to call.
According to American Soccer Analysis, the xG numbers were pretty even with 1.09 for LA Galaxy and 1.04 for LAFC. Overall, these teams are still not at their full strength. LAFC is still awaiting the arrival of Andre Horta and likely some other players in the summer, and LA Galaxy awaits the return of their three injured DPs Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos, and Romain Alessandrini. LAFC showed for the first time this season that they are still an expansion team with flaws. They entered the match last in possession, which leads us to believe that they are not as comfortable possessing the ball as they are in transition. We saw this on Galaxy’s first goal, and this will undoubtedly be a point of emphasis for Bob Bradley. The primary concern for the Galaxy will likely be their defense, as they really struggled to defend against the transition attack of LAFC throughout the match.
This is the first of three LA Derbys this season, and if the other two contain a fraction of the excitement we witnessed on Saturday, I think everyone will be very pleased.