The L.A. Galaxy visits Allianz Field on Sunday and the Major League Soccer playoffs with the league’s highest-paid player — 542 career goal-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic — surrounded by offensive creators only money and prestige can buy.
“They’ve got threats everywhere you look,” United coach Adrian Heath said.
Heath’s team, meanwhile, reached the playoffs for the first time in three MLS seasons, remade from the back outward. Built down a spine of skill and experience, from MLS Goalkeeper of the Year favorite Vito Mannone and newly named two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara to four-time all-star Ozzie Alonso in the defensive midfield.
It is why United went from one of MLS’ worst defensive teams to one allowing the fifth-fewest goals this season. After giving up 70 goals in 2017 and 71 last season, it gave up a mere 43 this season.
It is also why United, on a comparatively lean budget, earned a first-round, home-field playoff advantage at new Allianz Field, where it lost just once this season. The star-studded Galaxy allowed one more goal than it scored this season. But with Ibrahimovic and his $7.2 million salary surrounded by young Argentine national Cristian Pavon, Uriel Antuna, Jonathan dos Santos and others, the team is conceivably built for a knockout-playoff format.
Now United will discover just how far such a carefully selected structure can carry it in the playoffs, when the game changes and every little moment matters more.
“It was more designed after those first two years,” Heath said. “We realized we needed to get some MLS experience, some leadership qualities, some winners. People who are really good professionals and hold their teammates accountable.”
His team acquired those three players — all of whom now are 30 or older — and also added younger players Jan Gregus, Romain Metanire and Robin Lod from leagues in Denmark, France and Spain. Later it signed Uruguayan teenager Thomas Chacon.
Drafted rookies Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson joined an existing core that included defender Michael Boxall, who has partnered with Opara down that spine at center back
“We knew we had to make the playoffs,” Alonso said. “So they bring me here, they bring Ike, they bring Jan, Romain, Vito. It’s not just me or Ike or Vito. They bring a lot of people with a little extra to make it happen.”
At what price?
Mannone, Opara and Alonso each had contract issues with their former clubs, which United benefited from in January.
It traded $1 million in allocation money to Sporting Kansas City for Opara, who had grown unhappy with his deal after six seasons there. He played this season for a $350,000 salary, not much more than he was paid by Sporting KC, which missed the playoffs this year.
“At the time, people thought we overpaid for Ike,” Heath said. “I thought we got him cheap.”
United also made a deal that same month with Seattle to acquire Alonso on waivers so it could offer him a $700,000 salary that was too rich for the Sounders.
That gave United two players with playoff experience. Each has won a MLS Cup, too.
“I can’t think of another defender in the league who has done more than Ike has,” Boxall said about his center back partner. “I really can’t.”
After efforts to sign a young South American goalkeeper withered, United obtained Mannone, a former Premier League keeper who once played before 84,000 fans in a F.A. Cup final at Wembley Stadium. He arrived on loan from Reading FC, in England’s second division, and joined a team seeking a starting goalkeeper who could win games with a timely save.
“You’re not just looking for quality on the field,” United sporting director Manny Lagos said earlier this season. “You’re looking for personality, character, leadership. That comes from experience. For us, this roster has been a three-year build on the core we had the last couple years. When you’re talking about improving up that spine, we ended up gravitating to guys who ticked all those boxes.”
The answer men
Opara and Alonso, in particular, arrived in Minnesota with questions. Could they both stay healthy all season? And just how much soccer was left in each player’s body?
“There’s always that,” Opara said. “I like to find motivation and it wasn’t very tough for me to find that. It was popping up everywhere I turned.”
Opara played in 30 of 34 regular-season games. Alonso played 27. Early on each established himself as a locker-room presence, especially after United traded brash team captain Francisco Calvo in May. Alonso assumed the captain’s armband, a change that contributed more than most to the team’s culture change.
“I just felt it was something we needed to do,” Heath said. “The fact Ozzie had been captain in Seattle, he was the natural choice. He’s very much a leadership guy, sometimes by words, mostly by example. He has been everything we expected and probably more.”
Heath has said the same about Opara, Mannone and others on a team that recorded 11 shutouts this season, four more than United’s first two MLS seasons combined.
United’s defense up that middle and its ability to make its new stadium a fortress has become the team’s identity, a sharp change from last season when designated player Darwin Quintero’s offensive talent appeared to be it.
“It has been important all season. It has been our base,” Mannone said of the team’s strength up and down that spine. “This season, our aim was not to concede [goals]. It has been rewarding because the less we concede, the more chance we got to get points. Almost every clean sheet we’ve got has been three points. It has been a good base to work from. We are compact as a team and we know our roles.”
In baseball, you win with defensive strength up the middle — from catcher, pitcher, shortstop and second base out to center field.
In its playoff debut, United will pit its defensive spine against Galaxy’s gifted scorers.
“With a lot of teams in a lot of sports, if your spine is really good, you have a really good base to work from,” Heath said. “That’s what we’ve tried to do.”