First, the good news. A feisty LA Galaxy now have a one-goal lead in their series against the Colorado Rapids and they did not concede any away goals. “We’re happy with the first half of this leg. There’s a reason why [the Colorado Rapids] are where they are in the table during the year. We did our part at home. Now the pressure switches to them. They’ve got to find a way to get a goal and if not, then 0-0 gets us through,” a confident but cautious Landon Donovan, who’d just completed his third full game at the StubHub Center in one week’s time, explained to reporters Sunday evening. In fact, a draw, a one-goal loss (except for a 0-1 loss) or any win will get LA through to the Conference Championship Series. Moreover, the Galaxy have now had 4 clean sheets in their past 5 games and they’ve not lost a single one of those. All signs indicate the progress Donovan has spoken of in the past 3 weeks in their practices is coming to fruition when it counts the most.
There was just one ungraceful but lucky goal yesterday that made all the difference in a really tough battle between the 2nd and 3rd place Western Conference rivals on an uncommonly dreary LA afternoon. In front of what should have been a sell-out crowd (reduced in numbers to 24,487 due to an early 2pm start and overcast skies), Bruce Arena stuck with the same lineup that worked against Real Salt Lake last Wednesday to get the emphatic 3-1 win. He’s only ever chosen the same starting XI that one other time this year, back in July and stated that it was partly to reward the team from Wednesday and partly because it worked so well. The home advantage rule applied, as it did across the league yesterday, and LA defeated Colorado 1-0 on Giovani dos Santos‘ 55th minute header, one that deflected off Axel Sjöberg to accidentally beat Tim Howard in goal. Galaxy’s defender of the Year, Jelle Van Damme’s assist marked his 5th of the year, and his 1st of the playoffs. In a play that showcased his constant aggression and leadership, Van Damme saw own shot from distance turned away, went running after it, lashed it towards the center of the field where Dos Santos was eagerly waiting. Giovani gave it just enough power to head it through Sjoberg who lay prostrate in goal afterwards in frustration. Other than that one moment and another earlier in the first half which would have been Alan Gordon’s second playoff goal had a foul not been called, USMNT’s “wall” Howard and his defensive lineup were almost flawless in their efforts.
As the Galaxy’s new captain, Van Damme has been deservedly credited for his tenacious leadership on the pitch and his comic relief banter in the locker room. When asked about his pressing for a more forward position, noting his aggressiveness and his spur of the moment inspirations on the pitch and his game in Dallas, Jelle blushes, “No, no no, that was a while ago. Let me stay where I play now. Don’t start mixing up a good thing.”
Next, the bad news. The 1-0 win wasn’t an easy one for LA and the worn-out lineup began showing signs of slowing down towards the end. It took over 11 shots, 3 of which were huge saves by classic Tim Howard who shows no sign of letting his age get the better of him. The Rapids picked up their level of play once another USMNT favorite, Jermaine Jones, joined the midfield party. Lesson: never underestimate Jones. He may be nursing a knee injury still but his mentality is very similar to that of Jelle Van Damme. He’s intimidating, he’ll take the knocks knowing the risk, help with possession, and with a few weeks of healing time before the Conference Final, he can be convincing. “You’ve got to put chains on him to keep him off the field, but I think [Sunday] is a performance that shows that he’s relaxed. He’s not thinking about his knee. He’s moving well and making some good plays so I look forward to a good week of training this week and we’ll see where we go,” Mastroeni hints.
The underdogs, LA will take their newfound playoff mentality to mile-high Dick’s Sporting Goods Park where Colorado will look to to defend their peerless undefeated home record and advance to their best finish in the MLS Playoffs since 2010. The last time Colorado were in the playoffs they crashed out before the semi-final round. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni still maintains their advantage is their stellar home record this year – compounded by early November weather and altitude issues, he’s wrong about the former, since the forecast is calling for 70 degrees and an early day game.
“We’re going back home. I like our chances at getting a goal in the waning minutes or going in overtime. At altitude where teams struggle. We feel like this is going to be no different. Hopefully [at] 9pm at night. Hopefully [at] 30 degrees,” Mastroeni half-jokes with a sly grin.
Though the LA Galaxy eked out a win at home, they will, at a minimum, have to secure a draw against Colorado next weekend in order to move to the MLS Western Conference Finals. In light of the fact that Colorado has played so well at home this season, that will undoubtedly be a challenge. The ghost of Marco Pappa’s stoppage time goal earlier this year will hopefully be a lesson LA takes with them.
“We’re a force at home. We’re going to need to do it again. There’s no Monday morning next week, so we have to do the business on Sunday,” Tim Howard deadpans, with the underlying serious tone of a pro.
For those who won’t be in Colorado for this Sunday’s match, the Galaxy are hosting a viewing party at the StubHub Center on the big screen. The two-game, aggregate-goal semifinal series winner advances to the Western Conference Championship Series to be held on November 20 and November 27, 2016.