The LA Galaxy will limp into the MLS playoffs, that much has already been assured.
And after a 4-2 loss to the Houston Dynamo — the second-worst team in the Western Conference — and coming off a loss to the worst team in the conference last weekend (Vancouver), the Galaxy have fallen to fifth in the conference standings. And they’ll enter the single-elimination tournament on a two-game losing streak, on the road to Minnesota.
Going into the match, a day that saw 90-degree temperatures and 40-percent humidity, the club had a 76% chance of finishing fourth or higher. But that fell apart almost as quickly as it came together.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Galaxy head coach, not content with the way the defense performed in the 4-3 loss to Vancouver last weekend, moved Dan Steres to the bench and started Giancarlo Gonzalez in his place. Goalkeeper David Bingham returned from injury to start this game. But neither change materialized the way Schelotto had imagined.
The Galaxy scored first — a development that should have brought a winning record — with Zlatan Ibrahimovic collecting the ball on the top-left side of the box. He then stood up his defender who waited for the 6-foot-5 striker to make a move. In that hesitation, Ibrahimovic fired a smooth chipped shot to the far post to beat goalkeeper Tyler Deric in the ninth minute.
It was Ibrahimovic’s 30th goal of the season on an afternoon that could have seen him score two or three more – one struck into the ground and off the crossbar, and two more put over the crossbar. And with a Golden Boot race in full effect, those misses may have put some pressure on LAFC’s Carlos Vela. But it wasn’t his night, and it certainly wasn’t the Galaxy’s night.
“He has been very important for us, he has scored 30 goals,” Schelotto said. “He has battled with Carlos Vela the whole season for the most goals and Vela finished with the title. Both have had a great season. Zlatan is very important to us, he knows what I’m talking about.”
The Dynamo would answer back. Christian Ramirez would put one in the back of the net two minutes into first-half stoppage time.
Cristian Pavon would restore the Galaxy’s lead in the 54th-minute off some beautiful combination from Ibrahimovic, Favio Alvarez, and Uriel Antuna. Ibrahimovic would find, an injury replacement, Alvarez inside the box. His one-touch pass to Antuna would see the 22-year-old slide across the face of goal and slot Pavon in on the left side. His right-footed shot curled past Deric and momentarily moved the Galaxy into a hosting a home playoff game. It was Pavon’s third goal for the Galaxy and something to add to his eight assists in just 11 games with the club.
But that would be it for the Galaxy. Pavon would hit the post, Sebastian Lletget would fire off the crossbar, but the Galaxy couldn’t buy another goal.
“We hit the post three times, that is not easy,” Schelotto told reporters after the game. “We just didn’t have any luck offensively today.”
And while they dominated possession (56.8%), they couldn’t keep the Dynamo out of the back of the net. Alberth Elis would score in the 62nd-minute, followed by the second goal of the afternoon from Ramirez in 83rd-minute. Then the real icing on the cake came in stoppage time of the match when Houston’s Memo Rodriguez gave the Dynamo their fourth goal of the game.
The Galaxy defense never got comfortable. They failed to cover for each other or move fluidly between positions. And because of the heat, the Galaxy’s midfield didn’t make it back to help out. And while Schelotto’s directions to move the point of pressure further up the field, the gap between the midfield and defense allowed a speedy Dynamo to continually break into space and pass around the edges of a retreating defense.
“I think we have to wait until the playoffs, which doesn’t mean nothing because it’s a totally different game in the playoffs than this last game,” Ibrahimovic said of the team’s mentality after the loss. “Today we played for the position and with a loss or draw, we are still in the playoffs.”
The Galaxy finished the season with just three wins in their last nine games. And in their previous two games, they allowed eight goals in total. That means that for only the fifth time in club history, and the second time in the last three years, the Galaxy finished with a negative goal differential.
The road-loss also meant the Galaxy finished the season averaging just a single point away from Dignity Health Sports Park. A stat that should raise alarms as the Galaxy get ready to head to Minnesota on either the 19th or 20th of October.
But regardless of the playoff trip, the Galaxy can’t feel great about their last couple of games. And this loss in Houston may have longer repercussions than merely a chance to play at home.