Defending champs LA Galaxy open MLS season with win over Chicago

BY Kyle McCarthy • March 7, 2015

CARSON, Calif.

The defending champion LA Galaxy kicked off the 2015 MLS season with a 2-0 victory over Chicago on Friday.

Jose Villarreal opened the scoring just after the hour with a low, angled finish to consolidate the Galaxy’s evident superiority on the night. Robbie Keane guaranteed a winning start to the campaign with the emphatic second in the final 10 minutes.

The margin proved more than warranted on a night when the Galaxy faced a poor Fire out and took care of business accordingly. The first match of this season lacked the drama of the MLS Cup victory over New England back in December, but it did supply the home side with a positive start in its bid to claim a sixth title later this year.

"It's just the first game, but I thought we were solid," defender Omar Gonzalez said. "One of our goals is to be good the whole season."

The fate of this game hung firmly in the balance as MLS and the MLS Players Union negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The two parties eventually reached an accord on Wednesday evening to pave the way to proceed with this match as scheduled.

It took both teams much of the first half-hour to warm to the opportunity presented. Chicago set out its stall in a 4-4-2 to match the home side's setup and supplied reminders why it finished last season with more draws than any other team in MLS history. The organized visitors conceded the ball far too cheaply, but the home side struggled to conjure the sharpness required to break them down.

Keane exhorted his teammates to improve and they finally heeded his remonstrations after the half-hour. The reigning MLS MVP played an integral part in the uptick with a clever ball out to Gyasi Zardes on the left, but Zardes squared with too much pace to locate Stefan Ishizaki’s run at the back post.

Ishizaki mined the space in front of debutant left back Joevin Jones shortly thereafter to cross invitingly. Villarreal pulled back his run to meet the surface, but he snatched at the shot as he leaned back to turn on goal. Zardes then somehow failed to turn home moments on the stroke of halftime as the Galaxy ended the first half on the front foot.

Chicago improved modestly once play resumed without mustering much of a threat or shifting the course of the game irrevocably. The dynamic of the game always favored the home side to engineer the opening breakthrough. It just came down to a matter of whether the Galaxy could figure out a way to procure it.

The home side huffed and puffed until it received a bit of help from the out-of-sorts Fire. Jeff Larentowicz played a square ball across his own penalty area and watched in horror as it fell to the feet of Villarreal at the far post. Villarreal kept his composure when presented with the opportunity and slotted inside the far post to open the scoring after 65 minutes.

One goal always looked like more than enough for the Galaxy on the night and the Fire ultimately did little to alter their fate. Chicago coach Frank Yallop chopped and changed as he could, but the expected panache on the counter never arrived.

The champions did not squander the opportunity afforded to them and ushered the Fire expertly toward defeat. Plenty of space opened up with Chicago forced to commit numbers forward in a bid to restore parity. Ishizaki and Zardes both missed opportunities to extend the lead, but the Galaxy eventually got their deserved second to secure the points when Keane smashed home in the final 10 minutes.

Keane’s rasping finish offered an exclamation point to cap an otherwise humdrum night against overmatched opposition. The result mattered more than the method on this night and the Galaxy did more than enough to kick off their defense in the proper fashion.

Brian Rowe earned the shutout with just one save in a one-sided performance by the Galaxy just three months after they raised their third MLS Cup trophy in four seasons at StubHub Center.

They're off to the right start, particularly at home. The Galaxy are unbeaten in 17 league games at StubHub since March 8, 2014.

The night began with another visit from the retired Landon Donovan, who wore a suit and tie when he joined his former teammates on the field for a brief pregame ceremony honoring MLS' first five-time champion franchise in front of a sellout crowd.

The Galaxy hung a large temporary banner above the video board, but otherwise kept the night's focus on their future without the most accomplished player in U.S. history, who turned 33 years old Wednesday.

"It's very different not to see him in a jersey, but Landon is always supporting us," Zardes said. "He still texts me from time to time. It's like he's still part of the team."

Coach Bruce Arena plans to try several strategies to fill the gap between Donovan's retirement and former England captain Steven Gerrard's arrival from Liverpool in July.

Villarreal and Kenney Walker started in midfield in the absence of Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas, who was traded to Colorado, but the lineup otherwise was filled with contributors to last season's title.

"It's the same team, for the most part," Arena said. "They're an experienced group, and they know how to play."

Keane also had his body language in midseason form, gesturing demonstratively and even kicking the goalposts once when his teammates provided poor service. After Keane scored, he skipped his usual cartwheel-somersault celebration for what appeared to be an obscene gesture.

Keane didn't speak to reporters after the game.

The Galaxy dominated possession and didn't allow a Chicago shot to reach their net in the first half. But their inability to finish numerous scoring chances left Keane throwing his hands in the air in frustration. Villarreal notably had a point-blank chance in front of goal in the 41st minute, but sent it sailing high.

"It was just a matter of time before we scored a goal," Arena said. "We put them in a position where that team would tire out a little bit because they had to do a lot of defending in the first half."

Before the game, the Galaxy re-signed forward Edson Buddle, a 100-goal MLS scorer who could help up front.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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