Turns out, LA Galaxy did need a remade midfield
And they’re playing great together.
With the LA Galaxy chasing a path back to relevance and hopefully much, much more in MLS in 2022, there’s been one position group transformed over the past year to pretty significant effect, the midfield.
Greg Vanney entered his second season as Galaxy head coach with another couple windows to try and corral the squad and get a group that would fit with his vision. The first significant move made in remaking the midfield came in the offseason, with the arrival of Mark Delgado, a versatile mid who was being reunited after the pair were together at Toronto FC and even before that, at Chivas USA. Now 27, the veteran has been close to a rock for LA this season, only missing a handful of games due to knocks or illness, and while he doesn’t necessarily wow you with his steady play, his job is to keep things moving for the team and he does that very well.
But as Victor Vazquez has endured an injury-filled season and Efrain Alvarez still hasn’t emerged as a regular starter, Vanney’s apparent first option midfield, to flank a playmaker with two or three more defensive-minded mids around him, hasn’t worked. The players available haven’t been able to bridge the gap in terms of playmaking, and the goals dried up midseason, Chicharito struggling for service and only Dejan Joveljić popping up to make goals out of nothing to keep the Galaxy alive. As the whole team slumped into the summer, it was difficult to pinpoint just how this underachieving squad could be tweaked.
The midfield was where the Galaxy targeted changes in the summer transfer window, with two starters eventually joining the fray. Gaston Brugman was first, billed as an experienced defensive midfielder, a player who would be more comfortable playing the No. 6 than Rayan Raveloson, who was transferred back to France to make room for the incoming moves. The Galaxy have had a 5W-3L-4D record in competitive games with Brugman in the lineup, all starts. He’s also had three goals in his last two games, so he’s stepping up when the team needs him.
As the last player of the core trio to join, Riqui Puig has pretty clearly been the linchpin, the player whose game is raising the games of the players around him. In eight games with LA, the team has posted a 3W-1L-4D record when he’s played. In that span, he has two goals and five assists.
But the production only tells part of the story. These players actually compliment each other well. All three play good to very good defense in midfield. All three can hit a terrific pass. All three can also hit a golazo from range.
Puig really does seem to be the proverbial straw that stirs the drink. In a position where you often don’t notice what they’re doing, unless they score or make a mistake, Puig’s game draws the eye throughout the match. He seldom misses passes, period, and underlining his FC Barcelona training, he always seems to gravitate to the right spaces for the moment. He’s not afraid to get stuck in, and he can really sell a foul. Cap it off with purposeful energy from whistle to whistle and a penchant for a dramatic goal, and he would be the runaway MLS Newcomer of the Year frontrunner if he had arrived a few months earlier.
It’s also evident in Brugman’s arc since arriving. I thought he was really sharp in his first game, but he got sucked into playing slow for a few games, and I got really worried that he would help slow the team down again, which has been a persistent problem for this team. When they play with a high tempo, they almost always play better. When they play deliberately, they’re nearly always stymied.
But after Puig started playing, Brugman looked better. The ball moved faster, he seemed to find his role as the most defensive-minded of a versatile trio, and lately he’s showing his attacking chops, too. And I think that’s helped bring out the best in Delgado, too. He’s a player who plays smart no matter what the group around him is doing, but obviously the mileage varies greatly depending on how the rest of the team performs. With the midfield clicking, the team as a whole is clicking.
It’s worth noting that Vanney isn’t really locked into a pure three-man midfield, and Vazquez, Alvarez, Sacha Kljestan, Daniel Aguirre and others are getting playing time around the trio and to spell them off the bench. Vanney values the flexibility and while I think he’s still trying to figure out how to get his best players on the field at once in a coherent way, it’s pretty obvious at this point that the midfield of Puig-Delgado-Brugman is going to be at the heart of the lineup when healthy.
There’s still soccer left to be played, and results to be picked up for the Galaxy to reach the playoffs this year. But based on what we’ve seen the past couple months, it looks like the LA midfield did need a makeover, and the new-look group is carrying the team down the stretch.
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