Photo Courtesy of the LA Galaxy

Playoff hopes alive as Galaxy dispatch Real Salt Lake

The LA Galaxy responded to the firing of Guillermo Barros Schelotto on Sunday night, with a win over visiting Real Salt Lake. The win keeps the Galaxy’s playoff hopes alive — for now.

CARSON, Calif. — The LA Galaxy had a different energy about them on Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park. With a bit of a chill in the air and all but eliminated from the playoffs, it felt more urgent, more necessary, and more punitive with any bad results.

Surprisingly that made Giancarlo “Pipo” Gonzalez the hero on the night as he both scored a goal and saved a one in helping the Galaxy to a 2-1 victory over visiting Real Salt Lake (5-9-7; 22 pts; 1.05 PPG).

The Galaxy (6-11-3; 21 pts; 1.05 PPG), playing under interim head coach Dominic Kinnear for the second time in the last three seasons, came out in a pretty standard setup. But with Ethan Zubak starting at the lone striker position for the first time since the LA Galaxy’s 6-3 loss or Portland at the beginning of October.

Pipo Gonzalez got his starting spot back after his red card against LAFC two games ago, and Yony Gonzalez started at right midfield. David Bingham, who had been benched by recently-fired Guillermo Barros Schelotto, recaptured his starting spot with Kinnear — his former head coach at the San Jose Earthquakes — back in charge of the personnel decisions.

The Galaxy pressed high in their initial encounters with Salt Lake. They pressured the ball, made smart runs off the player holding possession, and were generally ferocious on defense.

Midfielder Perry Kitchen put in a tiring shift that punished any Real Salt Lake player who got in his way. He was physical to the point of being too aggressive but always seemed to throttle it back right at the point of contact.

Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos also pushed the pace. They played vertical balls in behind the RSL defense and forced defenders to make decisions.

And on the heels of some good possession dangerous chances building, Lletget would earn a free-kick from about 35-yards out. Lletget would send the ball into the box with his right foot, and Pipo Gonzalez would slide across to get his head on it. His redirection shot towards the near-post and past goalkeeper Andrew Putna for the lead in the 18th minute.

“I feel like what really helped me was that with Sebastian [Lletget’s] cross, the ball was coming at me hard, and all I had to do was redirect it with my head,” Pipo told reporters via Zoom conference call. “Obviously, I think it was an important goal because it gave us confidence in the moment because of our current situation.”

It was Pipo’s first goal this year, his second as a member of the Galaxy, and his third all-time in MLS (One goal with Columbus Crew, 2014).

And it was enough to give the Galaxy the lead heading into halftime.

However, the second half wouldn’t be as clean as the first, with some severe impacts on who the Galaxy will have available in their final two matches of the season.

But first, Pipo Gonzalez would make the most acrobatic of saves on the night after Corey Baird would be played in behind the Galaxy defense. Bingham would come off his line to challenge and barely get a fingertip to the ball. It might have been enough for Pipo Gonzalez to jump up in the air and clear the ball at head level — out of the goal. It was some outstanding work and some acrobatics that would keep the Galaxy ahead.

But dos Santos would go down with an injury in the 60th minute forcing Kinnear to make his second substitute of the night by bringing in Joe Corona. No injury update was available on dos Santos who took many minutes to walk back to the locker room after the injury. The Mexican International looked to be favoring his right leg after he slipped on the grass, attempting to defend against an RSL attack. But with just two games left and everything wrapping up by Sunday, dos Santos is very unlikely to play a role in either of those matches.

While dos Santos was still hobbling his way toward the tunnel, the Galaxy would get the burst of speed, energy, and finishing they were craving from Cristian Pavon. The Galaxy’s leading goalscorer on the season, Pavon took an intercepted ball from Emiliano Insua and ran 50 yards past three RSL defenders to poke the ball into the back of the net.

The individual effort was sublime, and the technical skill to run at the defense with that type of control was perfect. With Boca Juniors still wanting $20-million to make Pavon’s transfer permanent, he did the Galaxy no favors with his pure goalscoring ability on the play.

It was Pavon’s tenth goal of the season, and he’s added seven assists to wrap up the team MVP award. He’s also tied for third for most goals this season in the league behind Diego Rossi, and Gyasi Zardes. A frantic finish for the Argentine could see him inch closer to the top of that list.

The Galaxy would see their second-half possession drop, however, and their carelessness with the ball cost them a goal in the 78th minute. RSL’s Justin Meram would duck past substitute Rolf Feltscher and cross to the center of the box where Insua would get beat by Douglas Martinez, who had entered the field just six minutes earlier.

But that goal wouldn’t be enough for the RSL to mount any more pressure, and the Galaxy would eliminate them from the playoffs with the victory.

It was the Galaxy’s sixth victory on the year, with all wins coming without their highest-paid player — Javier Hernandez.

“I’m really happy for the win, really happy for the guys,” Kinnear told reporters after the game. “It keeps the Playoff hopes alive.

“I thought the first 45 minutes we were very good, created some very good chances, kept our shape really well, limited their looks. Obviously, in the 2nd half, we were a little bit sloppy with the ball in some bad areas, getting caught forward at times when we should be a little bit more alert to when the ball is turning, over especially on the goal for them.”

“Then you have to give Salt Lake credit,” he continued, “they were throwing a lot of numbers forward. We looked a little tired. I’ll be honest with you on that. They were kind of hanging on a little on there at the end. So first 45′, I give a complete thumbs up to everything we spoke about and the second 45′, I just give them a thumbs up for absolute heart and courage, so congratulation to them.”

The Galaxy have just two games remaining and will need to win them both if they’re to even dream of the playoffs. As it stands, they’ll need both San Jose and Vancouver — the Galaxy’s Decision Day opponent — to help them out if they’re to squeak above the red line. MLS has expanded the teams invited to the Western Conference’s playoffs to eight, while the Eastern Conference will get ten.

And with teams missing multiple games due to COVID-19 cancelations, points per game is being used as the final arbiter. That means, with 1.05 PPG after 20 games, the Galaxy have momentarily climbed from the basement to reach the tenth spot in the conference standings.

But the only thing more unrealistic than the Galaxy sneaking into the playoffs right now is MLS trying to convince fans that Supporters Shield standings and regular-season records mean anything in this wacky pandemic-effected shortened season.

The Galaxy did their part. Kinnear did his part, as well. And that gives the team some confidence headed into a midweek matchup that will see the Galaxy host defending MLS Cup Champions, Seattle Sounders on Wednesday, November 4 (8 PM).

“I think that’s one of his strengths,” Lletget told reporters about Kinnear’s coaching style. “He does do the basics well and simplifies things for players, and just players where they probably should be; and not to say that Guillermo didn’t, he has his way of doing things, respectfully.

“I think today, [Dom] just simplified it. And even yesterday in training, it was just very clear what we needed to do as a group and just put guys in the right spots. And I think in the first half, we had a good run. I think we got a little tired at the end at the second half… but we responded and stuck together.”