When Greg Vanney resigned as the coach of Toronto FC at the end of the 2020 season, many speculated there was only one opening that could have caught his eye.
Vanney was drafted in 1996 by the LA Galaxy, where he would spend seven years of his playing career. He led the team to three MLS Cup finals and two CONCACAF Champion’s Cup finals as a standout defender. He eventually returned and retired as a member of the Galaxy.
Now, 13 years after his retirement, the original LA MLS side find themselves at a comparative low point with one playoff appearance in the last five years. Their terrible -19 goal differential last season – trailed only by league-worst FC Cincinnati – and their league-worst 46 goals against resulted in the firing of coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The club was in need of some defensive nous, passing-lead ball possession, and someone to unlock their star front man. How could Vanney resist the temptation to bring the club that gave him his first shot back to its former glory?
Glory is still a few months off, but as we know from the majority of press conferences in professional sports history, it comes one match at a time. Vanney’s immediate impact was seen in the Galaxy’s first match of 2021 against flashy newcomers Inter Miami.
His first step at fixing a rather leaky defense was to keep possession of the ball with more-than-adequate passing and to not give the ball away in dangerous spots. A 91% passing accuracy, the team’s best in an MLS game since September 2014 against the Colorado Rapids, is an obvious step in the right direction. They managed to string together 22 sequences of 10+ open-play passes compared to last season’s average of just seven such sequences per game.
Even Daniel Steres, who averaged 79% accuracy on his passes last season, misplaced only one of his 50 passes. This focus on ball retention produced a possession figure of 66.1%, which is higher than any game for the Galaxy last season. The manager’s influence on keeping the ball has the potential to help on both ends of the field: creating more chances offensively, but also taking some pressure off an often-overwhelmed defense.
The jury’s still out on whether that’ll happen. The result was there, and LA limited Miami to the fewest touches of any MLS side on opening weekend, but Miami still managed to create chances. They had the fourth-most touches in the opposition box and their 2.64 xG was fourth highest over the weekend behind Nashville, Seattle and LAFC.
The possession-based style was a start, but pretty passing isn’t the only thing that makes Vanney a logical choice for the Galaxy. His tactical flexibility and ability to adapt to different situations was also apparent during the opener. Below is an image of the cumulative expected goals for both teams by the minute of the match. The Galaxy started the game in a 4-2-3-1, often building up in a 3-2-4-1 and leaving star striker Chicharito to both create and find space on his own as the highest player up the field.
As we can see, Vanney’s side wasn’t creating chances of any xG value until around the 60th minute. Instead of staying rigid with his initial plan, he made a critical substitution in the 58th minute to replace winger Samuel Grandsir with the more central forward-leaning Ethan Zubak and changing the formation to a 4-4-2. Adding another forward meant Zubak could do the hard running, creating space and providing an option in the build-up. That left Chicharito to do what he does best. He scored twice off shots with 0.33 and 0.83 xG values almost immediately following the shape change.
So 90 minutes in to the season, he’s matched his scoring total from 12 games in his first MLS season.
The Galaxy’s comeback was completed by a sweet, bending strike from Sacha Kljestan, another late sub brought on by Vanney. It’s was clear through Matchday 1 that Vanney’s focus on ball retention through accurate passing and his tactical flexibility have already had an impact on the five-time MLS Cup winners.
It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep the Galaxy spinning in the right direction for the rest of the season. Their match Sunday against the New York Red Bulls could be said to be another tune up given New York’s underwhelming 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City in which they completed just 66.4% of their passes and amassed the second-worst xG of opening weekend (0.56). After that, things get interesting with Seattle and the first El Tráfico of the season.