At this moment, coming off a regular season where he tallied 18 goals and two assists, the striker feels he’s answered the critics.
“What I’m very proud of is that I’m 34 years old and two years ago a lot of people were saying that I was done,” Mexico’s all-time leading scorer said before Saturday’s Western Conference Round One home game vs. Nashville SC (3 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & App).
Chicharito weathered an injury-plagued first season with LA, limited to 2g/0a across 12 games. And while he recorded 17g/3a in 21 matches a season ago, it ended in frustrating fashion on Decision Day as LA missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Now, Chicharito feels the league-record five-time MLS Cup champions are back where they belong after being “on my couch watching the playoffs.”
“Being part of the most successful organization, the expectations and the standards are the highest,” said the Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist. “So you need to lead from those expectations. I think myself and a lot of players, in this process, they’re starting to learn that. If you want to qualify for playoffs, if you want to wear this badge, you need to play every game like if it was a final.”
LA head coach Greg Vanney took note of Chicharito’s leadership in helping them secure the West’s No. 4 seed, guaranteeing at least one home playoff game. If they beat Nashville on Saturday, a possible fourth El Trafico rivalry game this year (across all competitions) awaits on Oct. 20 at Supporters’ Shield-winning LAFC.
“The way he’s helped us to build the team back up to where it is,” Vanney said, “taking a big role in terms of scoring goals for us but also his presence, his emotional contributions to the game and the team and the leadership – all those things have been really big to help get us back into this playoff moment. Hopefully we can run with it in this playoffs and take the club back into a positive position, maybe even a championship.”
Riqui Puig's impact
Another huge piece for LA will be Riqui Puig, who joined as a summertime deadline-day signing from LaLiga powerhouse side FC Barcelona. Puig has elevated their midfield alongside fellow midseason addition Gaston Brugman, and now he’ll enter a single-elimination playoff format for the first time.
“I’ve never played playoffs, it’s a little bit different than Europe,” said the 23-year-old Spaniard. “But I’m really looking forward to having a packed stadium in front of our fans. I’m nervous for Saturday and eager to get that win and try to win MLS Cup.”
Vanney beamed about Puig’s impact as a chance-creating midfielder. He’s posted 3g/5a in 10 matches.
“For him, it’s an opportunity to play,” Vanney said. “It’s playing inside of a structure that makes sense for him and a style of play that makes sense for him. Those pieces are all playing together and then when he goes on the field and he does his thing, he does Riqui’s thing.”
The Galaxy are optimistic a postgame celebration awaits at Dignity Health Sports Park, entering with one loss in their last 11 games to close the season (5W-1L-5D).
“It’s going to take the highest level of intensity that we’ve had all season, along with the highest level of concentration and attention to detail that we’ve had all season,” Vanney said.
Added Chicharito: “I think that maturity that we showed in those games is the most important part that we learned this season.”