Juan Pablo Angel’s arrival in MLS in April of 2007 as the New York Red Bulls’ second Designated Player was somewhat overshadowed by a signing made by the Los Angeles Galaxy just four months prior. In any other year a player of Angel’s quality would have been the story of the off-season, but compared to an international superstar of Beckham’s caliber he was something of an afterthought (in the minds of many at least) but it didn’t take him long to establish himself as one of the most dangerous strikers the league had ever seen. Angel’s first MLS campaign ended with his having netted 19 goals (still a club record) and there was little if any dropoff in his performance the following year as he led the team to an MLS Cup final appearance. The story was different in 2009; New York suffered a marked decline across the board and Angel was no exception, leading to questions as to whether his time as an elite MLS player might be drawing to a close. After a blistering start to the 2010 season Angel appeared to have silenced his critics, tallying 11 goals in the first 19 games, but his form dipped towards the end of the year and over the final 11 games Angel managed only two additional goals.
The Red Bulls declined to re-sign Angel at the end of the season and despite rumors of a return to River Plate, the now 35-year-old former Colombian international opted for the MLS Re-Entry Draft where he was selected by the Galaxy. After a somewhat protracted period of negotiation, Angel was signed as the Galaxy’s third designated player. Though he’s certainly less of a household name than Beckham and Donovan, Angel has a legitimately impressive pedigree. Angel made his senior debut with Colombian side Atlético Nacional at the age of 18 and scored 46 goals in 96 games games before moving to River Plate and netting another 46 in 94 games. During the 2001 January transfer window Angel became Aston Villa’s record signing, moving to Birmingham for a fee of £9.5M. After a somewhat shaky start to his time at Villa Park Angel would go on to put up successive impressive seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04. Injuries and inconsistencies marred his last two seasons with the club, but despite this Angel is still a beloved figure amongst Villa supporters four years after departing for MLS.
How does Angel's skillset fit into his new team?
Coming into the season, the Galaxy were in desperate need of a true, high-quality striker to fill the void left by Edson Buddle’s departure to Ingolstadt 04. Los Angeles has a ton of talent in defense and the midfield, but without a legitimate threat up top that talent isn’t going to produce the results it should. Landon Donovan is fantastic player and a prolific scorer, but he’s not a striker. Angel most certainly is, and on a team where he’s not depended upon to be the only (or even primary) concern for the defense he’s an exceptionally dangerous player. He might not be the most complete forward in the league, but the Galaxy don’t need for him to be; they need someone to allow Donovan to operate in space, to poach goals and to provide a target for the excellent service from midfield. Angel is certainly capable of doing all these things and while he might not be the player Edson Buddle is right now, the dropoff shouldn’t be so severe as to take the Galaxy out of the pool of favorites for the Supporters' Shield.
What kind of impact can Angel have on his team?
Expectations are high for both the Galaxy and Juan Pablo Angel coming into the season. LA spent a great deal of last season playing at a different level than the rest of MLS, and if Angel can give the Galaxy the kind of contribution they’re expecting from him there’s little reason to think they can’t do so once again this year. Realistically though, Angel looked less than himself toward the end of last season and at 35 it’s difficult to say whether that was a function of bad form, fatigue or decline. Angel has come back to surprise the league in the past, but at a certain point every athlete is no longer capable of contributing. While it’s certainly too early to think that he has reached that point, it has to be taken into consideration when weighing the impact he could have on this team.
As with every player in the world, there are a range of outcomes for Angel next season; the difference is that Angel’s are much wider than most. If he is injury free, sufficiently rested and meshes with his teammates, he could very well lead the league in goals. On the opposite spectrum, he could very well be a shadow of his former self and limp through the year ineffectively. The most likely outcome is almost certainly somewhere in the middle, but for Angel the extremes have a higher probability of occurring. He’s the quintessential high-risk/high-reward player. And while the benefits of a healthy and productive Juan Pablo Angel are quite high for the Galaxy, when considering LA’s other options it has to be said that the downside is quite grim. The risks are almost certainly worth it, but they have to be acknowledged all the same; Angel probably isn’t done, but if it turns out he is, the Galaxy are in some pretty serious trouble.
What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?
Like most players his age, Angel is not going to play 90 minutes a week. He’s still in fairly excellent condition, but for that to be the case throughout the season Bruce Arena will need to manage his time effectively. One thing that we know Angel can do is score and all the worst-case scenarios above aside, if he’s able to play he’ll probably have little trouble hitting double figures in terms of goals scored. Whether he’ll be able to function effectively in other capacities is a trickier question; just by virtue of his instincts and positioning, Angel is a threat. But if he genuinely has lost some of his fitness or speed, he’s going to be less of a factor in other areas. Because the Galaxy play a style slightly less dependant on a target forward and hold-up play than a lot of other MLS sides that’s not likely to be as big of a factor as it would elsewhere, but because Angel already offers less than Buddle in these facets of the game a severe decline would certainly be noticeable in terms of the team’s performance in the attack.
What's the ceiling on Angel?
Juan Pablo Angel is truly gifted with skills that do not fade as quickly as strength, speed or quickness, and he’s better suited to LA’s style of play than any other team in MLS. Though there are legitimate concerns related to his age and his quiet finish last season, it’s also important to point out that Angel will have more talent surrounding him in LA than he has at any point since he came the the US. Expecting him to lead the league in scoring is probably a bit much, but it’s certainly reasonable to expect him to finish near the top. It also must be acknowledged that Angel’s declining fitness is in fact an assumption, if a somewhat justifiable one. It’s entirely possible that the last 10 games of the season legitimately were a result of a temporary loss of scoring touch or (perhaps more likely) the result of Angel and Thierry Henry unable to form a decent partnership up top. If he’s comfortable, healthy and integrated into a supremely talented Galaxy attack, this could be a pretty special season for Juan Pablo.