COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Just 90 minutes of competitive action into his role as Los Angeles Galaxy head coach, Ruud Gullit already has to retreat to his private think tank and make a potentially pivotal decision.
Gullit could only look on in frustration in the Galaxy's Major League Soccer season opener in Colorado on Saturday, as the hometown Rapids tore L.A. apart in a 4-0 thumping.
The former World Footballer of the Year must have wished he could cross the white line himself as his players produced a listless display that blasted away a chunk of the Galaxy's preseason optimism.
Now, in the lead-up to Thursday night's first home game against expansion outfit San Jose Earthquakes, Gullit must go back to the drawing board – literally.
Does he stick with his preferred complex system which involves a three-man front line with another attacker in the hole behind the central striker? Or does he scrub that plan after only one game and revert to something more basic like a standard 4-4-2 format?
Gullit felt his players were negatively affected by the altitude at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, but even though they did look listless and flat, the coach himself knows that will not hold any water as a viable excuse.
In any case, there was nothing to indicate the Galaxy players felt comfortable and in tune with Gullit's system before it was tinkered with in the second half.
Every coach reserves the exclusive right to make alterations whenever he sees fit, but to see so many changes in the first game of the campaign was surprising to say the least. During the course of the contest, David Beckham operated in every area of the right flank, from an advanced attacking spot to a virtual right back role, and he also spent a brief period in the middle.
Gullit must find out whether he can educate his players, especially newcomers from the college game like Ely Allen and Michael Gavin, to adapt successfully to a method that they are unlikely to have ever seen before.
If he has any doubt about the fact, then he must surely swallow his pride and go with a 4-4-2. That option does have its limitations, but if it allows the majority of his squad to work in a feeling of familiarity and comfort, it should produce better performances.
Such a change would lead to more direct one-on-one matchups with the opposition, meaning the Galaxy would rely on their flair players like Beckham, Landon Donovan and Brazilian midfielder Alvaro to get the better of their markers, while requiring every man to stick religiously to his role.
Despite the embarrassing nature of the Colorado defeat, it is desperately premature to completely write off the Galaxy after just one game, however tempting it may be to do so. Time and again, the MLS's playoff system has showed that it does not always reward the best team – it rewards the hottest team come October and November.
But to get there, the Galaxy will need to settle on a style that will afford them a certain level of consistency.
Realistically, they need to find a way to maximize their greatest strengths – the individual talents of Beckham and Donovan. Allowing right back Chris Klein to overlap Beckham during counterattacks may speed up the play, but it also means that, in most cases, the key cross coming in will be delivered by a solid and earnest player – not one of the world's greatest crossers of the past decade.
Also, the heart of L.A.'s defense is a problem area, with Abel Xavier no longer having the physical gifts to keep up with the league's increasingly speedy strikers. Judging by the way he lost his head following the penalty award that led to Colorado's second goal (and was eventually sent off), Xavier's mental state is not ideal at this time either.
So Gullit has some tough calls to make, and their merit may not become fully clear for several months. But they are not made any easier by the fact that his job is the most scrutinized in MLS. The Dutchman has no choice but to back his judgment, and his players.
- Ruud Gullit