Surely it wasn’t the way the LA Galaxy wanted to kick-off 2021. They were trailing by a goal at halftime in a hot and humid Ft. Lauderdale and seemed to have run out of ideas on offense. Sure they were holding possession well, but it was possession without intent, and Inter Miami CF had all the dangerous chances.
So when Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney brought on Ethan Zubak in the 58th-minute in place of Samuel Grandsir, it seemed more like a desperation move than one that was going to change the entire complexion of the game. But that’s what happened. And that’s how the Galaxy ended up snatching a victory from Miami in the first game of the season by a final score of 3-2.
With Zubak floating higher up the field, Javier “Chicharito” Herandez finally found himself a partner.
Zubak got the ball on the left side of the box, and while opening up space, saw the far-to-near-post run Hernandez was making. He slotted the ball into the Mexican’s feet, where he trapped and quickly turned, firing a shot through the legs of the Miami Goalkeeper in the 62nd-minute.
That goal would be the first of two on the afternoon for Hernandez, who would smash home a loose ball in the 73rd minute after a misplayed save attempt by Miami goalkeeper John McCarthy left a big rebound to the far post. Zubak almost got his head on the initial cross, but he was enough of a distraction to get the ball over the line for Hernandez, who smashed the ball home from a foot away from the goal line.
It was a welcomed goal for the Galaxy, who had given up a Penalty Kick to Gonzalo Higuain just two minutes earlier on a borderline penalty that referee Chris Penso called after Rodolfo Pizarro lost control of a ball at the top of LA’s box. Jorge Villafaña found himself accidentally ‘megged as Pizzaro swung his foot into Villafaña’s legs and collapsed for the whistle.
But the Galaxy weren’t finished. And with Sacha Kljestan joining in on the scoring in the second half, they’d have another chance at the deciding goal and the last word in the match.
With Miami tiring and the Galaxy pressing forward with second-half substitutions, it came down to a simple, yet delicate, layoff from Lletget that found Kljestan’s left foot from just outside the left post. His curling shot went around Miami defender Nicolas Figal and just kissed the left-post on its way into the back of the net in the 81st minute.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney said after the match. “I thought the first half everything was just too slow. The ball was moving too slow. We weren’t creating enough danger and asking them enough questions.”
But with Zubak bringing a dimension the Galaxy didn’t utilize in the preseason — playing a second forward — Miami couldn’t cope.
“I played him as a striker,” Vanney said. “The thing about Ethan (Zubak) is not so much about his positional play. It’s about his willingness to run. And whether it’s from a wide position or it’s from a central position, he gives us that consistent willingness to run behind and to stretch the opposition…
“His willingness to run behind, it just changes the game.”
Chicharito reaped the benefits of Vanney’s keen eye for exploitation. He scored just twice last year in 758 minutes while making just 12 appearances in the Galaxy’s 22 games. On Sunday, however, Herandez oscillated from visible frustration through the first 60 minutes to pure elation after notching a brace in his first game of the season. And he converted on both shots he took, with both being on target. It was a highly efficient run for a man who saw a lot of pressure come off his shoulders.
But for Chicharito, it’s just a reminder that everything he’s been doing is paying off.
“The only thing that comes to my mind, and that I’ve been feeling since I scored the first goal, it’s like everything that I’ve done so far has been worth it,” Hernandez said of his heavily restructured offseason training program. “Even that bad year that I did helped me so much to improve.
“Honestly, I haven’t been working this hard in my entire life.”
And on his partnership with Zubak? For Herandez, it’s just simply the energy that all the substitutes brought off the bench.
“I think that what Ethan (Zubak), and all the other players that came on, shows the good squad that we have.
“We were speaking, and even Greg (Vanney) told us that the lift-up that they gave us means that we have an amazing and big squad — that they’re ready to help the team whether you play one minute or 90 minutes. It doesn’t matter.”
The Galaxy will be thankful for several stops from Galaxy defender Nick DePuy who more than once had to go to ground in some emergency defending against a talented but immature Miami side. Jonathan Bond, one of six players making his Galaxy debut, also made several good saves in a solid first effort.
Oneil Fisher played well at right-back and stayed on the field through 90 mins after playing less than 45-minutes in the Galaxy’s last preseason game. His veteran presence certainly helped solidify an uneasy backline that was tested more than it should have been.
But with the Galaxy holding 66-percent of the possession while getting outshot 19 to six, the club still has a lot of work to do.
There are lessons to be learned. Whether it’s their ability to fight back from being a goal down or it’s the ability to see the bench change the game, they’ll surely be better off for having played this game.
It’s a cultural shift, and maybe it’s one that everyone should have seen coming — the Galaxy have a coach who doesn’t wait for someone else to make the first move. And in this game, he got his players to react to a vulnerability he saw, and it paid off in the end.