Poor start leads to painful conclusion for LA Galaxy in Tijuana

Dario Benedetto scored the crucial third goal to spur Club Tijuana to a 4-2 victory over LA Galaxy on the night and a 4-3 triumph on aggregate in their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series.

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TIJUANA, Mexico

The search for answers started shortly after the final whistle at Estadio Caliente. Hope and expectation transformed into disaster and disbelief during the course a miserable evening for LA Galaxy. And the defeated visitors couldn’t quite pinpoint why their downfall occurred within mere minutes of the opening whistle.

“It’s hard to explain,” Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan said after his side crashed to a 4-2 defeat at Club Tijuana on Wednesday night and exited the CONCACAF Champions League after succumbing 4-3 on aggregate in this quarterfinal tie. “I don’t know what happened, to be honest. We seemed ready. We seemed prepared. We spoke all week about how we wanted to approach the game. One ball sort of bounced around in the box. We weren’t alert and didn’t clear the ball. Next thing you know, you’re down a goal.”

Jaime Ayovi’s scrappy opener barely a minute into this second leg erased all of the good work from the first leg and scuppered the Galaxy’s game plan before the players could implement it. The belief and the organization instilled during the narrow first leg victory collapsed too easily, the victim of a failure to clear the lines in the buildup and a violation of the precious tenet of starting concretely away from home.

The visitors compounded their early misstep by failing to find steady ground shortly thereafter. At this point, the tie occupied neutral ground on aggregate only with Tijuana firmly in control of the direction of the proceedings .

Even that tenuous parity persisted for only a few more moments with the rampant Xolos placing the tattered Galaxy under severe duress. Ayovi soon dashed over the top of a disjointed Galaxy back line to make it two in nine minutes and throw the Galaxy in a hole they simply could not expect to escape.

“The game was over in the first 10 minutes,” Galaxy striker Robbie Keane said. “Simple as that. We started off slow. When you concede a goal in what, one minute, you can’t start away from home like that, especially in a game like this and then expect everything is going to be OK. Once you concede one goal, it’s about getting back and getting organized together and not conceding again. [Seven] minutes later, we conceded again. Straight from then, our backs were against the wall and it was going to be difficult.”

More rudimentary defensive errors cost the Galaxy a third goal inside the first 25 minutes. Dario Benedetto pounced on Leonardo’s failure to clear and smashed his opportunity inside the far post to stake the Xolos to a commanding lead.

To their credit, the Galaxy – stunned as they were after the dire and ultimately fatal opening period – managed to navigate their way to halftime without conceding again. Galaxy manager Bruce Arena opted to change his entire tactical deportment – two substitutes at the interval and a new reliance on direct, if often intelligent, play toward the inserted Rob Friend – to trouble the Tijuana rearguard more consistently.

The shift – plus the inevitable improvement inspired across the board – nearly produced a comeback for the ages. Keane pounced at the back post to draw a goal back shortly after halftime to move the Galaxy within a goal of the semifinals. The visitors pushed as much as they could after that juncture, but Richard Ruiz’s ruthless finish nine minutes from time restored the cushion. Keane’s second goal – prompted by an incisive Donovan feed and secured with another exemplary finish – arranged a potential grandstand ending, but it never arrived.

Nor did the Galaxy warrant the late escape in light of the dreadful opening period. There are no facile explanations for how the early stages unfolded, no tidy ways to explain how all of the careful preparations fell apart within 10 minutes or so. The impact is simpler to assess with this CONCACAF Champions League run now concluded, though. 

“When you start a game like that, you don’t deserve it,” Donovan said. “We lost the game in the first 25 minutes. We know that. It’s disappointing because we know what we’re capable of and we showed what we were capable of. Unfortunately for us, we were a little naïve. The game’s 90 minutes long, not 45.”