The Galaxy have made a habit of signing high profile talent, and when he arrived this summer, Steven Gerrard seemed to fit the pattern. He, like those who came before him, was going to fit in and help the team bring another MLS Cup back to the StubHub Center. But with the playoffs and the presumed run to another trophy set to begin, Gerrard isn’t driving the team forward. Instead, the Liverpool legend is dragging the Galaxy down.
Gerrard’s stay in LA started brilliantly, with a goal and an assist in his first MLS match. His fitness wasn’t great, but that would come along, Bruce Arena assured. He would get more mobile and comfortable with the team. Things would be great. There was no reason to doubt him.
There was every reason to trust Arena. The Galaxy haven’t just signed some of the biggest stars to come to MLS. They have also had the most success with those stars. David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane all won multiple MLS Cups under Arena, who has shown that no manager can integrate big personalities and talents as well as he can.
Gerrard has bucked the trend, though. He’s not fitting in. He’s not playing a key role in a great team. While Arena promised an improved Gerrard as the season went on, that hasn’t been the case. The Galaxy have struggled in the season’s final month, but their trajectory still looks good compared to that of Gerrard.
The 35-year-old has looked every bit his age. He has been slow and, most terrifyingly, is always attempting to conserve energy. There isn’t an unnecessary run he won’t try to avoid, and there’s no chance to track back he won’t consider skipping. The game always looks like it is passing him by, as he too often becomes a carousel in the middle of the pitch.
Gerrard’s inability to keep up with the match has created a huge hole in the Galaxy team. Not only is he a step slow going forward and far from tidy in the final third — he was played in alone against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday and shot directly at the goalkeeper — but he’s ruined their ability to maintain shape and defend.
It’s impossible for a team with a four-man midfield to provide a suitable shield for its defense when one central midfielder is useless at stopping the counterattack or picking up runners into the box. That’s especially true on a team like the Galaxy, which is full of attacking talent who will almost always have both outside midfielders looking to get forward.
The only way for the Galaxy to maintain a coherent defensive shape is with their central midfielders. Juninho is doing his part and then some, but Gerrard is a turnstile. While opposing teams are running at the LA defense, often through the center of the pitch, Gerrard can be found 30 or 40 yards from goal, just watching.
This isn’t an entirely new Gerrard. Liverpool saw flashes of this last season, his last at Anfield. It’s why he was no longer first choice and partly why he left the club. As age had caught up to him, he was no longer good enough.
Few players in their mid-30’s can handle the rigors and demands of playing in the center of the pitch in the Premier League. But MLS was supposed to be different – not an easy or low level of play, but certainly less demanding than what he was used to in England. Instead, Gerrard has looked worse than he ever did at Liverpool. Even those who were pessimistic about Gerrard’s ability to transition to MLS didn’t expect him to be this bad. No one could have imagined that he’d be so slow and immobile.
The Galaxy did know that Gerrard wouldn’t be quite like their prior Designated Player signings. After all, he is three years older than Beckham when he signed and when Landon Donovan retired, while Keane was only 31 when he joined LA. There’s a reason the Galaxy only gave Gerrard an 18-month contract when Keane got two-and-a-half years (with an extension that followed) while Beckham signed on for five-and-a-half years. They knew the end was nearer than anyone else they had signed, even if they didn’t think the end was now.
If Gerrard can’t play better than he has, and markedly so, the best thing for LA is for him to watch the postseason from the bench. The Galaxy’s success hasn’t simply been a matter of stars shining bright, but a deep group of role players. That includes the likes of Baggio Husidic and Mika Vayrynen, who are far less sexy and offer significantly less upside than Gerrard, but are capable tacklers and able to do the work in the middle to ensure the defense isn’t exposed.
SEE MORE: MLS knockout round preview capsules.
Benching a superstar is never easy, but right now, Gerrard looks like a crutch. If the regular season exposed that, the postseason will only make it more glaring.
The question is whether the Galaxy really believe Gerrard has reached the end. They have three months of evidence saying so and, with the playoffs set to begin, they’re out of time to hope and wish.
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