The Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the Chicago Fire in the season opener this past Friday 2-0. The Galaxy dominated possession but went into half time at 0-0 due to poor finishing, a few unlucky bounces, and excellent scramble defending by Jeff Larentowitcz and Eric Gehrig. With the play more level in the second half, Stefan Ishizaki sent a cross in that was poorly defended, and Jose Villarreal found the ball for a first time strike and scored. Robbie Keane added to the lead in the 81st minute, and the Galaxy were able to kill the game out before the Fire could respond.
One of the biggest questions coming into 2015 for LA was the left midfield position. No one was expecting a player to come in and perform at the level of Landon Donovan, but it was most likely going to be a young player after the bid for Sacha Kljestan fell through. This situation was not ideal, but there were plenty of options: Raul Mendiola, Bradford Jamieson IV, Charlie Rugg, even recently drafted Ignacio Maganto. All that was needed was for one play to step up and seize the opportunity.
Villarreal has been a bit of a project since turning pro in 2012. He made 10 appearances with the first team his rookie year, mostly as a sub. He then jumped up to 22 caps in 2013, playing over 1100 minutes. This increase however was more due to necessity because of lack of roster depth rather than Villarreal’s form. In 2014, the Galaxy created USL affiliate, LA Galaxy II. Villarreal however chose to go out on loan for the majority of the season to Liga MX side Cruz Azul, and played only 19 minutes with the Galaxy. He made no league appearances in his time with Cruz Azul.
With other talented academy players in the squad and great expectations for the defending champs, 2015 could be a make or break year for Villarreal. Bruce Arena would not have started Villarreal at LM last Friday unless he earned it in preseason play. He didn’t need to be Man of the Match or even stand out. He just needed to do his job, not make any costly mistakes, and keep it simple when in doubt. As arguably the weakest position on the field and one of the least experienced starter, he didn’t need to win the game by himself. He just couldn’t be the reason the Galaxy dropped points.
Villarreal made this opportunity count. He was very active up and down the flanks. He said after the match that Robbie Rogers did a good job communicating and directing him defensively. He also made several cross attempts in the match and was involved in a few of the big scoring chances (some of which should have been goals). He also had a golden chance in the 41st minute, but sent the ball over the bar. Removing his goal, it was a good and pleasantly surprising performance. With the goal (his first since August 2013), he’s all but earned the right to start at LM for another few matches to prove it should be his going forward.
On the left is Villarreal’s shot and passing chalkboard from Friday. On the right is the same for Donovan in last year’s 5-0 win over RSL in the playoffs (arguably one of Donovan’s best games).
Obviously, it’s unfair to compare Villarreal in his first game of the season to an in-form playoff Donovan who scored a hattrick, but it does quantify and validate what the eye-test results. What do we see?
Donovan was much more involved in the play and had more touches. With the Ishizaki-Gargan tandom controlling the right flank all game long, this isn’t a big deal. The buildup wasn’t going to be down the left. He was going to sit out wide to stretch the play and be an outlet. It’s no surprise then that he had fewer touches than Donovan. We would also expect his touches to be further up the field as Donovan would be more critical to build up play and holding possession.
It’s also worth noting that Villarreal provided more service into the box. Some of this is due to the style of play. Donovan’s trademark is stretching the play then cutting inside to make a play. Villarreal stayed out wide and delivered more long crosses into the 18. While most of them failed, from watching the game one would see that at each of those moments, the cross was the right decision. He wasn’t being closely marked and the Galaxy had numbers in and around the box. A bit more work on his crosses and a team-wide improvement in finishing, and Villarreal will have more cross attempts and a higher success rate.
Lastly, we see a few passes from Villarreal on the right. Late in the game, he switched sides with Ishizaki. These are an outlier if anythig.
This is still a work in progress. He has to be more consistent. Most defenses aren’t going to be as poor as the Fire were. Opponents will also have better attacks, which means less possession and more defending. Villarreal must be ready for this. Behind him, he has Rogers and one of the best back lines in MLS. Immediately to his right, one of the better midfielders in Juninho. In front of him, a left-running Robbie Keane ready to give directions and teach. That results in a really smooth learning curve for the 21-year old Inglewood native. Later this year, he’ll have Steven Gerrard as a teammate.
If that quality defensive cast can teach Rogers as he adjusts to LB and if Keane and Donovan could help Zardes improve as a striker, then everyone around Villarreal can help have a successful 2015 at left midfield. Like he said after the match “Bruce has been speaking to me close. [I am] just following orders and trying to progress everyday.”
Go do your thing Jose, you were handcrafted in Los Angeles for a reason.
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