CARSON, Calif. — It was well worth the wait, not only for the LA Galaxy but especially Romain Alessandrini.
The popular French midfielder had missed the last 27 regular-season games before coming off the bench and assisting on Jonathan dos Santos’ game-winning goal in last Sunday’s hard-earned, 2-1 playoff victory over Minnesota United that vaulted the five-time MLS Cup champions into Thursday’s highly anticipated Western Conference semifinal showdown with Los Angeles FC at Banc of California Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
Yes, Alessandrini acknowledged, the inactivity had been difficult for one of the Galaxy’s most popular players. But he’s healthy — finally — and eager to help lead the Galaxy in their quest for a record sixth MLS Cup.
“I’m glad to be back, be with the team and help the team,” he said. “Right now, I feel real good … very happy.
“We’ll see what’s going to happen on Thursday.”
Alessandrini, who had meniscus root repair in his left knee in April, had been limited to just five games (all starts) before coming off the bench in relief of Uriel Antuna in the 73rd minute Sunday. And it took him only two minutes to make an impact when he assisted on dos Santos’ game-winner.
To say his presence was special is putting it mildly. The reaction from not only his teammates but Galaxy fans on social media indicated as much.
“It’s nice, it’s nice,” he said. “I give everything I have for the club, for my teammates. It’s a part of my character. I’m very happy about that because they give me a lot of confidence and I see all the comments from the fans, too. I appreciate that and want to thank them for that. They believe in me, so I have to give my best.
“But now I’m here, and I feel good, and hopefully, I’m going to finish well this season.”
First, there’s Thursday’s clash with LAFC, the sixth meeting in a series the Galaxy have dominated (2-0-3).
“They never beat us, so maybe we have a little bit of an advantage … psychologically, I think so,” he said in agreeing with a reporter. “Right now, it’s the playoffs. The crowd will be on fire, I think. I think it’s going to be the biggest game of the season.
“We have to give our best and play better than we did in Minnesota. We can do better. Right now, everyone is focused on this game … the fans, the club, all of the players … and I truly believe we’re going to succeed.
“If we want to win this cup,” he went on, “we have to beat LAFC.”
Among the highlights of last Sunday’s victory over Minnesota was the return of another veteran midfielder who has spent most of the season battling injuries.
You remember Perry Kitchen, don’t you? The 27-year-old, in his second season with the Galaxy and seventh in MLS, had been limited to just eight games (including six starts) this year after undergoing ankle surgery just before the start of the regular season and then recovering from a groin strain in the summer.
Kitchen came back with a vengeance against Minnesota, and his return couldn’t have been better timed with Joe Corona nursing a turf toe suffered in the regular-season finale against Houston. Kitchen started and went the full 90 minutes for the first time since August and teamed with dos Santos in a solid, defensive performance.
“Personally, I was very happy to be back,” Kitchen said. “Then obviously to get the win on top of that was super sweet. Playoffs are always fun games to play in, so I really don’t have any complaints. My body held up better than I thought it would, and I’m happy about that.
“I haven’t really been out that much in my career, so to struggle with injuries this year has been new. But I’m happy to be back at the right time.”
Kitchen admitted he might have been a little surprised at how he made it through the game so well, considering his lack of playing time this season.
“I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would, to be honest,” he said. “It was obviously a pretty back and forth game, so there was a lot of ground to cover.
“We’re really proud of the result. We showed great character to get a result on the road. We were the only team in the first round to do that. It kind of fuels us into Thursday, which is obviously a huge game.”
Kitchen, asked if the Galaxy have LAFC’s number or if there’s even a hex on their crosstown rival, hedged a bit on the subject.
“Who knows?” he replied. “I don’t believe in stuff like that. I think on the days we’ve played them we’ve shown up and done well. We just need to do the same thing.
“If we do that, I think we’ll be good.”
THE BIGGER, THE BETTER
Dos Santos agreed the hype surrounding Thursday’s clash is understandable. In his opinion, there is no bigger competition anywhere than the postseason showdown between two bitter rivals.
“Yes, I agree with you,” he said when asked if it was the biggest game in the world this week. “It’s a good game to play for us, for the fans, for the world. I’m happy to play against (close friend and LAFC’s Carlos) Vela, one of the best players in MLS.
“I’m happy for him because he’s doing very well. Hopefully, he’ll have luck in the next game,” he went on to laughter from reporters. “Hopefully, we win this game, and we know it will be complicated.”
Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said he plans to share some of his veteran leadership culled from playing in major competitions throughout his career with his younger players and those who are new to the MLS Cup playoff format.
“About myself,” he said, “I need to take my experience in big games and try to put them in the best position and try to win and do the best for the Galaxy,” he said. “On offense, we have to try to take it to them because they have good players like Vela, (Diego) Rossi and (Brian) Rodriguez.
“We need to work to win. Right now, we are thinking just about winning.”