Brittany Campbell

Galaxy get a second-half push for a season-opening victory over the Fire

CARSON, Calif. — LA Galaxy defender Diego Polenta gathered himself under pressure as the Chicago Fire pressed high in an attempt to force a mistake in the 49-minute of the match on Saturday night. So when he turned and casually sent a ball back toward Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham, he didn’t expect he would send Fire forward C.J. Sapong in on goal and allow the visitors to take a 1-0 lead. 

It was a small mistake that sent the 25,866 fans in attendance at Dignity Health Sports Park into a fit of silence. But thankfully for Polenta, the Galaxy were just getting started. And all the possession that the Fire had over the first 50-minutes of the match didn’t end up helping them one bit as the Galaxy wound up winning 2-1 at a wet and rainy Dignity Health Sports Park.

The Galaxy started the night with injuries to Perry Kitchen (ankle), Juninho (knee), Sebastian Lletget (hamstring), and just recently shipped forward Ola Kamara to the Chinese Super League before buying out Giovani dos Santos contract on Friday. 

That left a squad with several players making their MLS debuts and also ensured the Galaxy would be a bit slow to react to the start of the match. 

To add to the injuries,  Romain Alessandrini left the match in the 20-minute suffering from a right hamstring injury, forcing Emmanuel Boateng onto the field prematurely. Then, when Jonathan dos Santos grabbed his hip just minutes later, it looked like a nightmare start to the season. 

But Jonathan dos Santos would remain in the game and the Galaxy would end the first half with some decent chances on goal — the best coming from a point-blank header from Daniel Steres in the 4-minute, that forced a save from new Fire goalkeeper David Ousted. 

The second half would almost collapse under the weight of Polenta’s bad back pass, and the Galaxy seemed short on game-changers. 

That was, until, 16-year-old Efrain Alvarez made his MLS debut to a loud cheer from the Galaxy faithful in the 60-minute. At 5-foot-8, he wasn’t the smallest player on the field — that belonged to Emmanuel Boateng at a very generous 5-foot-6 — but he was the youngest by nearly five years. 

He stepped onto the field and promptly put a stamp on the game. His left foot — wise beyond his age — curled an in-swinging cross that found Steres rise above the rest of the Chicago defense as he headed the ball into the back of the net. But it was Alvarez’s cutback that caught Chicago playmaker Aleksander Katai going the wrong way to open up the space for the cross.  

“Honestly, I tried to give the best to my team and contribute as much as I could for my team, and I did,” Alvarez told the throng of media after the match. 

The goal would bring the Galaxy level in the 68-minute and spur them on towards the eventual victory. And it was Alvarez, again, who would have a hand in gettin the Galaxy over the line. His little flick pass to substitute Chris Pontius, put the Galaxy midfielder into open space inside the box. Pontius’ left-footed strike beat Ousted but rattled off the underside of the cross bar before being finished by the head of Galaxy captain, Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 80-minute. 

Schelotto was generally pleased with the result. Even as the first half probably got away from his team.

“The game, during the first half, was very even,” he said. “And the second half we kept everyone playing like the first half but we made a mistake give the pass back and we find them. We give them the goals, but the game always was even. 

“But after that, I think with some chances with Alvarez on the field we changed a little bit,” Schelotto continued. “We started to have the possibility for a tie or after a tie for a win. I saw how our team is going forward and trying to beat Chicago.”

And the night’s game-tying goal scorer also had some positive words on the how the Galaxy played, specifically about how the defense – a major sore spot in 2018 – faired on the night.

“I think we worked well together, as a unit, as a four,” steres told CoG. “We shifted pretty well. I think the main thing is we kept them out of the box. 

“At the end we got a little deep and took a little bit of pressure. But, I mean we’re making them shoot from 20-30 yards out. That’s not that bad, we’ve got Bingham in goal, he can make good saves and he did that tonight.”

The Galaxy saw MLS debuts from Alvarez, Uriel Antuna, and Diego Polenta, while Emil Cuello, the Galaxy’s first-round draft pick made his professional and MLS debut. 

And all players made an impact on the field to varying degrees of success. 

Antuna was speedy and forced Chicago to chase him throughout the night. The 21-year-old Manchester City loanee was confident in attack and really just missed the finishing touch as his crosses found targets but no finishers. 

Cuello was probably the most disappointing on the night, but it wasn’t unexpected. He was tasked with staying connected with the midfield and did have a wonderful turn and pass in tight space towards the end of the first half that resulted in Boateng earning a free kick in a dangerous spot. But he was mostly anonymous, and was too easily taken off the ball.

Polenta was solid — outside his errant back pass — and Alvarez was outstanding as he rewrote the script for the Galaxy. 

As a whole, the Galaxy survived their first game. They fought hard through injuries and inconsistent passing and eventually came out on top. And it’s the start they needed as they face a softer MLS schedule than some of their other opponents. 

But there is always room for improvement. 

“Today’s win is very good for our confidence,” Schelotto admitted. “And also if you review the game we did what I like and what we are working towards – creating the plays, building on the attack, creating chances on goal. 

“In other parts of the game that was not the case. I believe that we were okay and maybe we didn’t have the same level of play and intensity for the full 90 minutes but we did on many occasions and maybe the challenge now, as we play more games, is that we create those situations more during games and that we play on the opposing team’s half of the field longer.”