The universe were scheduled to kick off their 28th MLS season Saturday, a fact the league acknowledged a few days earlier by telling the team it will be playing for.
For the third time in six seasons, the MLS has changed its playoff format, this time featuring 18 of the 29 teams in the league. Of the major American professional leagues, only the NBA is generous with its postseason invites.
Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl has been postponed due to the threat of flooding and lightning. Once the season begins, the Galaxy will hint at a playoff tournament that will begin with a wild card game between the eighth and ninth seeds in each conference, followed by a best-of-three first-round series. The winners play single-elimination matches the rest of the way, meaning wild card teams that reach the MLS Cup final can play as many as seven playoff matches. Add to that the 34-game regular season, the new month-long Leagues Cup featuring the Mexican Liga MX and the US Open Cup, and MLS teams might play 54 times in about 42 weeks.
For Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, that makes this the most challenging season in league history.
“Teams are built in different ways in MLS,” Vanney said. “Some are built to handle the long haul and many races. Others are built to try and win a championship – you know, for the playoffs.
“It’s a new wrinkle in the league and ultimately I think everyone will prioritize getting into the playoffs and a chance to win the championship. Because that’s the traditional way.”
The Galaxy followed that traditional path last season, but fell short and squeezed into the postseason by losing just once in their last 11 regular season games and then winning just once in the playoffs. That mentality has not changed despite the added competitions.
“Right now we’re focusing on the competition,” said Vanney. “As we continue to build the roster and move into the different events, we will play to get ourselves ready to try and win a championship in each of them. But we will try to be intelligent about the minutes we expose players to.”
Squad management will be hugely important for a team that starts the season with little depth. Vanney, who is also the Galaxy’s sporting director, added just four players during the off-season – two in the past week – while seeing 11 leave. Among those who left were starting wingers Kévin Cabral, who was traded, and Samuel Grandsir, who chose to return to France for personal reasons, and right-back Julian Araujo, who joined Barcelona on a transfer last week.
The Galaxy are on the verge of signing Lucas Calegari, a 20-year-old Brazilian from Fluminense, as Araujo’s replacement and are rumored to be closing in on a deal with former Real Madrid midfielder Isco, who is a free agent.
The Galaxy faces a deadline to get it all done as they will have little room for maneuver after the primary transfer window closes in April. Last summer, Vanney added midfielders Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman and defender Martín Cáceres, fueling the team’s late playoff drive. But the Galaxy will not be allowed to register a player this summer who will need an international transfer certificate, punishment for breaching MLS salary budget rules in the signing of Argentine striker Cristian Pavón in 2019.
The team’s meager depth could be tested early on as Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the Galaxy’s top scorer for the past two seasons, was hampered by a sore hamstring during the preseason.
“Every game and every point counts,” said Vanney, who led the team to winning records and one playoff berth over the past two seasons, the only Galaxy coach to do so since Bruce Arena’s departure in 2016.” Every match becomes an important game because sometimes it comes down to who is in and who is out.
Behind Hernández, the Galaxy has Dejan Joveljic, who scored 11 goals last season despite playing only 983 minutes. Newly signed Tyler Boyd, a former national team player, will play on one wing with either Efrain Alvarez or newly acquired Memo Rodríguez on the other; designated player Douglas Costa played sparingly during the pre-season, leaving his role with the team uncertain.
The midfield of Brugman, Puig and Mark Delgado is arguably the strongest part of the team, while the back line is firm in the centre, with Jalen Neal, Cáceres and Sega Coulibaly, but weak on the outside until Calegari arrives.
Jonathan Bond returns for his third season in goal; he conceded at least 50 scores in each of his first two campaigns.
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Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez: With 35 goals in the past two seasons, the Galaxy captain has accounted for a third of his team’s goals. But he also sat out 25 games due to injury during his three years in MLS and, at 34, is starting this season with a sore hamstring. His health could play a huge role in determining the fate of the Galaxy.
Riqui Puig: Including the playoffs, the Galaxy lost just one of the first 11 games Puig played in after arriving from Barcelona in August. But in the Western Conference Semifinals, LAFC got physical with the small playmaker and neutralized him. That is a blueprint that other teams will certainly follow and that Puig will have to overcome.
Gaston Bridgeman: While Brugman’s primary responsibility as a defensive midfielder was to break down opposition attacks, his precise passing also helped transform the Galaxy attack following his arrival from Parma in July. His experience – he spent ten years playing in the top two of Italian football – is also a big plus.
Tyler Boyd: As Vanney continues to tinker with his roster, he adds help to the wing figures to be a focus. In the meantime, the Galaxy will look to Boyd, a childhood fan of the team and a former national team midfielder, to provide stability and creativity in attack.
Jalen Neal: Neal is one of the few players who played for the national team before making a league appearance for his club. The teenager will be making his MLS debut this season and the Galaxy expects big things from the central defender. Given the team’s demanding schedule, a prolific Neal, either as a starter or first man off the bench, will be important for a team that needs depth.