The Galaxy opened training camp last week with two pressing problems.
The first is a roster issue. With the December signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a league-record $7.2-million contract, the team started camp with four designated players [DPs], one over the league limit.
To solve that, the team could restructure the contract of one of its other DPs to squeeze it under the league’s salary cap. Or it could swallow hard and give Giovani dos Santos the $6-million-plus he’s owed in the final year of his deal, then send him on his way.
On Wednesday, Gio’s brother Jonathan waved off that idea.
“Gio stays,” Jonathan, also a designated player, insisted in Spanish. “The team needs him. He’s a good player. Not all teams have a player with the quality of Giovani and we need him this year and he’s going to stay. No doubt.”
New coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto wouldn’t say if he agreed with that. But he didn’t disagree either.
“Things will be solved in the coming days,” he said of the designated players issue. “I don’t think there will be any problems with that.”
There will be no quick fixes to the other problem though. Over the last two seasons the Galaxy defense, hampered by injuries, the lack of a consistent playing philosophy and a lack of depth, gave up 131 goals. Only one team in the Western Conference gave up more.
But veteran Dave Romney, one of 12 players the team has tried on the back line in the last two years, said the first 10 days of camp has convinced him Schelotto has a solution.
“We’ve already gone through a lot of tactics that are extremely clear and concise of how he wants us to play, exactly where he wants us to come,” he said. “We have a template that we need to follow and it’ll be clear to see kind of where that breaks down. I think it’s a good start.”
A lack of clarity is only one of the things that troubled the Galaxy the last two seasons. The team had just two natural right backs – Pele van Anholt and Rolf Feltscher – and injuries limited them to 20 games combined, forcing the team to finish the 2017 season with forward Gyasi Zardes at the position.
Captain Jelle van Damme, an MLS All-Star center back, walked out on the team midway through the 2017 season and his replacement, Michael Ciani, proved to be a bust. Then Jorgen Skjelvik, the team’s $1-million Norwegian upgrade, struggled to adjust to MLS in 2018, playing a total of 20 minutes in his final three appearances.
The last two seasons also saw the team, playing under three different coaches, cycle through a number of defensive formations – none of which the players ever really got comfortable with.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve constantly been changing the back line. Playerwise, formationwise, tactically,” said Romney, who is entering his fifth season. “It will be nice, hopefully, this season to get a good structure going … we can build upon for years to come.”
Schelotto is also adding depth and experience. Uruguayan center back Diego Polenta trained with the team Wednesday and his deal with the club is expected to be formally announced soon. And the coach said more reinforcements could be coming.
However, Feltscher, a Venezuelan international limited by injury to 15 games in his first MLS season last year, said the players already under contract have to do better as well.
“If you give up so many goals in a season, you did not do good work,” he said. “Everybody has to work on the defense.”
Schelotto was a high-scoring forward during his playing days in Argentina and with the Columbus Crew, with whom he won both an MLS Cup and a league MVP award. And as a coach, he teaches an aggressive, possession-oriented style of play.
But it’s a style, he said, that can lessen pressure on the defense by keeping the ball away from opponents.
“There are a lot of ways to defend,” he said.
The challenge now, Feltscher said, is for the Galaxy to find one that works.
“If you give us less goals, it’s always better,” he said, displaying a firm grasp on the obvious. “It’s always easier to win.”