It's here! It's finally here! After several tense weeks of waiting the players and the league finally came together on a new CBA deal. And what's the match deemed appropriate to end the negotiations and start the 20th MLS season?! The LA Galaxy and the Chicago Fire...on Unimas. Yeah, it's not exactly a barn-burner, but any chance to watch the reigning champs is welcome. Plus, we got a look at the Fire's new blueprint going forward. As will be the custom this season, I'll be providing some assorted opinions and analysis (mainly tactical) of what I saw. Let's get into it.
Diamond V. Pivot
A quick glance at the formations above will tell a lot about the main battle in this game. The Galaxy fielded the aggressive midfield pivot of Juninho and Kenney Walker while the Fire went with a diamond. Now I'm sure we've all seen midfield diamonds before but this one was peculiar. Wunderkind Harrison Shipp and the athletic Matt Watson flanked holding midfielder Chris Ritter, while new summer signing Shaun Maloney floated in behind the strikers. At least that's what I thought. From the opening whistle it was clear Maloney was in full "Roaming Playmaker" role. Mainly ranging down the left-hand side, he consistently cramped Shipp's space. Shipp already looked a little out of place in the deeper role, and Maloney's movement further compounded the problem. Furthermore, Maloney isn't who I'd think of as an ideal roaming playmaker. He's small, and should be popping up between the lines to create chances.
Part of the reason Maloney couldn't find space was the Galaxy's pivot of Juninho and Kenney Walker. Juninho's skill set is well known but Walker's is probably new to most. At 26, Walker been in the Galaxy system for a while without breaking through to the first team. Now, with Marcelo Sarvas summer departure to the Rapids, his scrappy, no-nonsense style serves as an ideal pairing with Juninho all-action play. The Galaxy center midfielders shut down service into Shipp and Maloney, nullifying the Fire's attacking outlet, and allowing the rest of the team to press the back line. The Fire had no answer for this. Holding midfielder Chris Ritter shows potential as a destroyer, but lacks the passing ability to play through the lines. This meant Maloney or Shipp had to pick up the ball deep in their zone, creating acres of space between them and the forwards. Matt Watson was simply a non-factor. With Juninho and Walker holding down the middle, the Fire could never get a hold of the match.
The Galaxy attack the wings
With the midfield battle firmly won, the Galaxy could afford to keep their wingers high up the field. This pinned back the Fire's fullbacks, and allowed Stefan Ishizaki and Jose Villarreal constant 1 v 1 opportunities. Ishizaki in particular used this to devastating effect. With the attacking-minded Harrison Shipp in charge of supporting the left wing, left back Joevin Jones found himself isolated against Ishizaki far too often, resulting in situations like the first goal. On the other side, the wing duo of Robbie Rodgers and Jose Villarreal represented the Fire best option for attacking, but too often right back Lovel Palmer found himself pinned back facing dangerous overloads.
Fire increase pressure
The second half saw a different approach from the Fire. Instead of sitting back and trying to thread balls through to Shipp and Maloney, the Fire stepped higher up the field, trying to cut off service into Juninho and Walker. The approach was admirable, and resulted into some good play before two excellent Galaxy finishes put the game to rest. Shipp got involved on the ball, and Maloney finally started to involve the strikers. Quincy Amarikwa proved once again he's capable of going into full bull-dog mode if given the right service. If Yallop doesn't tinker with the formation, he should at least shift to a more pressure focused defense to try and get his best players running at goal.
This wasn't that bad for the Fire. If anything it was a quality test to find out what's working and what's not. Any team in the league shouldn't expect points at the StubHub, let alone the Fire. Yallop main goal going foreword is how to best use Shipp and Maloney, especially when big summer signing David Accam takes the field. As for the Galaxy it's business as usual. This team is still damn good, and we already knew that. Bruce Arena's task is too keep the momentum rolling, and ponder how to best use a certain Steven Gerrard when he arrives this summer.