Perhaps the most interesting thing about the early stages of the US Open Cup is that you often find teams with completely different organizational structures and purposes playing one another, which often results in some fantastic storylines.
This was the case on Wednesday night when the Ventura County Fusion upset the LA Galaxy II 2-1 with a stoppage time game-winner. It was a game that pitted two parts of the American soccer pyramid against one another that are essentially aimed at the same thing— player development.
On the one side, you have the Ventura County Fusion, a talented Premier Development League team comprised mainly of stand-out college soccer stars like UCLA forward and Gatorade player of the year, Abu Danladi. PDL offers college players an exceptional opportunity to get playing minutes outside of the restrictive college soccer schedule and arguably at a higher level of play. It’s often been said that player development is stunted in this country by college soccer and, in many ways, PDL is one attempt to fix this problem and more smoothly develop players.
On the other side of the field, the goals are similar but the methods are different. Take Ryo Fujii who lined up at right mid for the Galaxy. After graduating from the Galaxy Academy, Fujii attended a year at UCSB before the Galaxy offered him a novel contract. They offered him a contract with Galaxy II with a built-in program and funding for him to attend college at nearby Cal State Dominguez Hills. Here again we see an attempt to subvert the effects of college soccer on player development, only in a more “in house” way. This is exactly what a team like the Galaxy II exists to do. It’s a USL team not so much concerned with drawing crowds or winning trophies or even games, but rather providing a transitional stage in the in-house pipeline between the Academy and the first team.
Each system has its pros and cons, and we saw that on Wednesday. Given the nature of the Galaxy 2 team, it is a lineup that is constantly in flux as several of the players are being shuffled between the first and second team. But thanks to the rules of the US Open Cup, once a player plays for a team, they are ‘cup tied’ to that team and can not play for another cup team. Since the Galaxy are also in this competition and Bruce Arena will likely want to use youth players to give his starters a rest in those games, many of the Galaxy II’s best players were not on the field. The biggest omissions were Bradford Jamieson IV who is becoming more and more of a mainstay on the Galaxy first team and is, in many ways, proof that the Galaxy II set up can work for youth development, as it successfully transitioned him from academy to second team to first. Also missing was Raul Mendiola, who is currently on the cusp of first team minutes.
But that’s not to say that Ventura County had an advantage in this game because of this. In fact, they struggled with something different entirely– a lack of familiarity. PDL teams don’t assemble till early May. In fact, this was the first game that the Fusion had actually assembled most of its core players for a game.
But coach Rudy Ybarra had a plan to deal with this.
“I told the guys before the game started, they are going to come out faster than us. They are a team that is more into their season and we are going to have to make them play to our speed and I thought when we were able to do that we became a better team.”
The Fusion came out in a sophisticated 3-4-3 with a hinged back line system with rightback Matt Sheldon venturing into the midfielder as a right mid at multiple times in the game. This is a tactic we’re seeing growing in prominence around the world, but it has yet to make its way into the USL, meaning it was the first time the Galaxy II players had encountered such a system.
“We’ve always been an attacking minded team,” said Ybarra. “I’ve always said we play four in the back but we often end up playing with three”
By implementing this tactic, the Fusion were able to do several things. Their front three were able to pick and choose when to put high pressure on the back line, disrupting the Galaxy’s rhythm. They were also able to disrupt passing lanes in the middle of the field by having a right back step into the midfield and a left forward step back creating a 5 v 4. The name of the game was disruption, or as the Ybarra put it: “in key moments of the game, we were able to slow the game down to the way we wanted to play, not the way the Galaxy wanted to play.”
Despite their tactical abilities, the Galaxy managed most of the possession in the game and ended up outshooting the Fusion 21 to 12. Ariel Lassiter, son of the former MLS legend, Roy Lassiter, absolutely abused the Fusion’s left hand side with his pace but was unable to deliver the final ball to his forwards to convert this danger into opportunities on goal.
On the other side of the field, Ventura looked to spring Abu Danladi behind the back line on multiple occasions, but the Galaxy backline did a good job of keeping the phenom in check for most of the game.
Although the Galaxy controlled most of the first half, the Fusion were successful at keeping the ball in front of them and when they had opportunities they capitalized. In the 30th minute, after a string of good passes around the box for the Fusion which pullied the Galaxy defense out of shape, Jinho Kim passed the ball to Matthew LaGrassa , a midfielder from Cal Poly, who deftly chipped Galaxy II keeper Nicholas Shackelford who was caught off his line.
The Galaxy II responded fifteen minutes later when Lassiter played a ball over the top to Galaxy academy alumni Adonis Amaya who was taken down in the box by Fusion keeper Justin Vom Steeg who rather strangely received a yellow card for the incident despite being the last man and thus constituting a clear denial of a goal scoring opportunity. Lassiter stepped to the spot and drove the ball hard and down the center as Vom Steeg dove to his guessed corner. The game was level at 1-1.
In the second half, Abu Danladi sort of disappeared from the game but the Galaxy II were unable to convert their chances setting up a dramatic finish. With the score tied at 1-1 and deep into stoppage time, the prior invisible Abu Danladi rose to the occasion and showed why he has so many scouts drooling over his talent. Receiving the ball with tons of space on the left side of the 18, he took a touch inside, then another, each step looking for a shot but each step being rebuffed by Galaxy defenders closing down the space. But just as it seemed he had held on to it for too long, space opened up and the young forward struck the ball low and hard and past the keeper, delivering a final blow that did the professional side in.
Oddly enough, Danlandi had just gotten back to training the day before after a long stint of not playing since the college season. But the phenom showed no signs of rust in the moment and created a memory he will not soon forget. What a classic US Open Cup moment.
There were a number of MLS scouts, and even Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, in attendance. Did that give the youngster something extra to play for?
“To be honest, that’s not something I thought about,” Danlandi said. Abu was more focused on giving his best to a high quality opponent and that’s exactly what he did.
In terms of the big picture, does this game say anything about the merits of player development through PDL vs. the in-house grooming seen in teams like LA II? Probably not as a player like Abu Danladi, had he came through the Galaxy system, probably like Mendiola and Jamieson IV wouldn’t have made the field and would be fighting for first team minutes, but it was certainly interesting to see the two approaches go head to head on the night in a way that only the US Open Cup can provide and it was certainly fun to watch an ambitious coach in Ybarra who is experimenting with attacking styles that we simply aren’t seeing at the higher levels of US Soccer yet. Going forward, the Fusion are a team to watch as they are tactically dynamic and have one or two guaranteed future pro league stars on their roster.