It wasn't as bad as it looked

March 30, 2006
Dell'ApaBy Frank Dell'Apa

The 2002 and '05 MLS Cup finals involving the Los Angeles Galaxy and New England Revolution generally are considered the most tedious of the league's 10 championship matches. And the season-opening game between the Galaxy and Revolution on Saturday was not much better.

Unlike the rest of the MLS opening-day games, this one was a tight, tactical exercise, the only goal produced by the Revolution's Clint Dempsey off a free kick in the 33rd minute. The other five matches Saturday were wide-open affairs, producing 23 goals.

But that does not mean the Galaxy-Revolution matchup was the worst of the day. U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena attended the game at the Home Depot Center and called in seven players from the two teams for the April 11 friendly against Jamaica.

There must have been some quality soccer being played.

Tactics played a big part in keeping the score down, though. Both teams' passing was off, but that was caused partly by good positional defending in midfield. In order to break down a well-aligned defense, a team must make the right passes, and do so accurately and quickly. And neither the Galaxy nor Revolution had that pinpoint sharpness. But that will change.

The Galaxy won the tactical battle in the MLS Cup, and coach Steve Sampson should receive much of the credit. Revolution coach Steve Nicol adjusted nearly five months later. Nicol set up a 3-4-3 formation which kept the Revolution balanced and covered enough of the Home Depot field to limit the Galaxy's chances.

But the Revolution were hardly in a defensive alignment. The back three -- Jay Heaps, Daniel Hernandez and James Riley -- were in a potential high-wire act scenario. If the Galaxy could create anything in midfield or on the wings, or simply lob long balls into space, any of the three Revolution defenders might have been isolated against Landon Donovan and/or Herculez Gomez. But that only happened in the opening minutes, Donovan self-destructing with a bad touch on the best opportunity.

Other / Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesLandon Donovan didn't have his most effective game against the Revs.

The Revolution hoped to create on the right wing, Steve Ralston apparently returning to full speed from a quadricep strain sustained during a January national team training camp. Dempsey had the green light to go forward from a withdrawn striker spot behind Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman. But the sequence leading to the goal developed on the left, Joe Franchino outdueling Marcelo Saragosa in drawing a foul, then Andy Dorman placing the free kick perfectly for Dempsey to head in.

The fact that Franchino had advanced to the end line also indicates the Revolution's willingness to attack.

Yet, the Galaxy have defeated the Revolution when it counts -- in the 2001 U.S. Open Cup final and the '02 and '05 MLS Cups. The Galaxy were favored in 2001 and '02, the Revolution favored last year. And the team's roles have gone far in determining how the games were approached.

In the 2001 US Open Cup, the Revolution attacked from the start, took the lead on a Wolde Harris free kick, and displayed enough weapons to put away the Galaxy, which rallied late and won, 2-1, in extra time. In the 2002 MLS Cup, the Revolution defended from the start, taking only one shot in 90 minutes (a Winston Griffiths attempt off the crossbar), and lost, 1-0, in extra time. Last year, the Revolution were expected to set an attacking tone, and the Galaxy simply counterattacked; with Donovan and Gomez, the Galaxy had the weapons to do so, winning, 1-0, in extra time.

On Saturday, though, the onus was on the Galaxy to go forward. The Revolution, as visitors, went on the offensive selectively. As Hernandez said afterward: "You can't attack at 100 mph the whole game."

And the patience the Revolution demonstrated was a mark of maturity.

During their first eight-plus seasons, the Revolution mostly defended tooth and nail for 90 minutes. They were not a complicated opponent.

Nicol has changed the dynamic, and now the Revolution revel in going forward. In fact, the Revolution set an attacking tone in nearly every game -- home or road -- last season. Now, they appear to be understanding the need to pace themselves. If so, that strategy will go far in helping the Revolution in the postseason: by the MLS Cup last year, they were a burned-out group.

The Galaxy, meanwhile, peaked in the postseason. And the Galaxy, like the Revolution, started training camp two weeks earlier than other MLS teams in preparation for the Champions Cup.

But the Galaxy are off the pace of last October and November. Part of the reason is injuries. Todd Dunivant was missed at left back, though Nate Sturgis is going to be a more than adequate backup. Josh Gardner was a disappointment on the left wing. Sampson might have waited too long to bring in Ned Grabavoy, who started in the MLS Cup win, and no longer has the option of adding Pando Ramirez.

Sampson has at least one Brazilian (Thiago Anderson de Souza, formerly of Borussia Dortmund) arriving. He could opt for more left-side help. And there is talk of a possible trade with Chivas to bring in John O'Brien, though the Galaxy seem to be loaded in midfield. The opening game showed the Galaxy it might be better to look for more dynamic wing play and at least one more speedy striker.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.