TIJUANA, Mexico – The LA Galaxy couldn't help but be impressed by Club Tijuana after the beating they took in the first half Tuesday night, and although they rallied to make a real game of it – and at the finish were one goal from advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals – they understand a gulf exists between the clubs.
They can't bridge it by themselves.
“I think you see the difference in the leagues on nights like tonight,” Landon Donovan told reporters after the Xoloitzcuintles advanced to the final four with a 4-2 victory at Estadio Caliente and 4-3 aggregate triumph. “We've got probably six, seven, eight guys who are mature, who know how these games are. They've got 20 guys who know how these games go. And that's the difference between the payrolls.
“That's why we're not gonna ... it's going to be difficult to make that next step until we get on equal grounds that way so you can have the type of players that know how to handle these games.”
The Galaxy have several players who have played in high-profile club and international matches, including Donovan, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez, Jaime Penedo and Stefan Ishizaki, and quite a few more have played in tough CCL clashes in Mexico and Central America.
But the intensity of the game, the hostile environment, the qualities of the artificial surface, and the depth of Tijuana's experience and talent were difficult to overcome. When the Xolos scored twice in the first nine minutes, the game and series were virtually over.
“Obviously, the game plan wasn't to let two goals in in the first 10 minutes, and it's a difficult game plan after that,” said forward Rob Friend, whose entrance at halftime enabled the Galaxy to switch to a more effective direct attack. “Give credit to them, they came out flying.
“They know how to play on their pitch, you know? With the artificial grass, they're playing balls in behind us, and the ball was sticking, and they were getting to it first, and we came out sleeping a little bit.”
Tijuana's surface has longer “grass” fibers than the artificial fields in play in MLS – Galaxy coach Bruce Arena thinks it has something to do with NFL usage in Seattle and New England – and, unlike most man-man turf, it cuts down on bounces and slows the ball. The Xolos' exemplary home record is built on their familiarity with the surface.
The Galaxy got just one training session on the turf before the match.
“They know exactly how to play on their turf,” Friend said. “They were playing in behind us, where the balls stuck perfectly, and they were getting to every ball behind us. If going into that we knew how they played, I think we could have had a little bit different game plan.”
It might not have mattered. Tijuana were so good and the Galaxy so bad in the first half, and the Xolos' 3-0 lead was too great.
“Let's be fair,” Arena said. “We weren't good. How good they were, I don't know. They were certainly better than we were.”