Omar GONEzalez, or The Importance of Being a Centerback

Tomorrow is a big day for hyperbole. Sounders-Galaxy. Shield. Destiny. But the big question is how will the Galaxy approach the game without Omar Gonzalez?

The Galaxy’s bread and butter is the counter. Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Gyasi Zardes run the flashy attack, but L.A. relies on having Omar at back to bail them out if they falter in quick transition. Omar’s suspension is a gamechanger. It would be foolish for Coach Bruce Arena to overhaul his team’s entire modus operandi for just one match. And I assume that the Galaxy are too proud a club to do so. However, playing away at a deadly attacking team needing a win without the presence of USMNT star Gonzalez may be enough context to shake things up.

We know as Sounders fans how missing a key CB can have repercussions on your whole scheme. Remember the last Sounders-Galaxy match at CenturyLink field, the 3-nil drubbing we suffered? That was our first game without Chad Marshall and L.A. exploited it. We still had stalwart Zach Scott but we paired him with Jalil Anibaba. Anibaba is no slouch. He is a fine MLS starter, but he is no Chad Marshall. The same could be said of L.A.’s potential centerback replacement Leonardo.

Leonardo, like Anibaba (though I’d take Anibaba any day of the week and twice on matchday), is a fine MLS starter. Statistically, Leonardo does a good enough job. The Galaxy’s record when he plays this season is 13-4-6. Those four losses are all by only one goal. And a lot of those poor results could be chalked up to L.A. being in their annual early season funk, as the team went 3-3-5 through May. Not bad right? But when Omar Gonzalez slotted in as a permanent fixture following the World Cup, the Gals ran off a crazy 10-3-2 record, a killer 2.2 pts per game.

Centerbacks are huge difference makers. Especially in MLS where talent disparity is the rule: a $6 million striker will destroy a $40k centerback. In NFL parlance, centerbacks are like cornerbacks: defensive players whose success and failure is nakedly obvious. Everyone notices when a CB screws up. And in a fickle game, that one player or play can change the entire result. Having a stud centerback is key, so L.A. signed Omar to a fat DP contract, and the Sounders brought in Chad Marshall.

Chad Marshall is a stud. There is a fine and glowing review of Marshall up right now at MLS’s main site, detailing how he allowed the Sounders to rise to the precipice of elite. With all the Galaxy bugaboos haunting the Sounders going into last weekend’s game, Chad Marshall was the exorcist. Robbie Keane was on a Marshall Island (seehwhatididthere). The preferred cliché for a centerback shutting down a striker is “he put him in his back pocket.” Marshall didn’t just pocket Keane last weekend, he ducttapped him in a box, drove all the way up Aurora past the Everett Mall and locked him in a storage unit by Cypress Lawn Cemetery. Marshall put Keane away.

If we go back to that last Sounders-Galaxy match, the one without Marshall, we see Keane at his best. Because heat maps are fun:

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Keane was working mostly in the left of the attacking third atop the box. Here’s the heat map for the centerback he was abusing:

jalilGuess who it was? Less-than-stellar centerback Jalil Anibaba who, in vain, chased Keane around the park. With the absence of Omar, the Sounders are hoping to return the favor.

Frankly it’d be great to bookend this series with a good ol’ fashion butt whupping. If we just trounce L.A. tomorrow, thereby returning the favor from earlier in the season when we didn’t have our star centerback, it would even the regular season series: two trouncings and a draw. All while setting the stage for a potentially epic Western Conference final. SOUNDERS!

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