LA Galaxy find "big step forward" in 2022 despite El Trafico heartbreak

1020 LA sider

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – For the losing team, postgame interviews after an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs defeat are always a tough format to look big-picture on the season that just unfolded.

Emotions from the game are still raw, plays are still being replayed in everyone’s head and, to speak bluntly, there’s often a chartered bus or plane to catch back home.

But LA Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney entertained retrospective-oriented questions all the same, never one to shy away from deep, honest conversations about his team. Even after a 3-2 El Trafico defeat Thursday night at LAFC in the Western Conference Semifinals, which ended a run where belief was soaring in their locker room.

“Ultimately, I think it was a big step forward,” Vanney said of LA’s 2022 campaign. “We’ve been trying to rebuild the team over the past couple of years and I think we’ve taken big steps forwards over the past couple of years to rebuild this group.

“I think we’ve created a vision now of how we want to play. I think it’s exciting, attacking soccer and we want to have a lot of the ball and we want to have a group that’s connected and believes that it can win championships and we can get the club back on top.”

To reach this stage, LA knocked off Nashville SC by a 1-0 scoreline in Round One, hosting a playoff match for the first time since 2016. And they more than held their own at Banc of California Stadium, going blow-for-blow against their cross-city rivals.

Denis Bouanga’s brace was canceled out by Samuel Grandsir’s volley in the first half, then by Dejan Joveljic’s top-corner curler as second-half stoppage time approached. But when Cristian Arango pounced on a corner-kick scramble in the 93rd minute, it was too little too late.

The mix of disappointment and what-could-have-beens was palpable.

“The answer to that question is why it’s so disappointing to be out today, because we’ve been in such good form and such good momentum,” said goalkeeper Jonathan Bond. “Honestly, we’ve probably been one of the best teams in the past 12 or 13 games.

“We struggled for consistency in the early part of the season, a little bit like last season. But we found a formula. I kind of felt like we were probably the best, if not one of the best, teams in MLS in the playoffs. So, sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce for you a little bit like we needed today. But I think we carry on with this formula, this way of playing, next season and we should have a strong season.”

Galaxy postseason trips are rare nowadays, missing out on four of five from 2017-21. And their last venture, in 2019, also ended in the Western Conference Semifinals at LAFC, a 5-3 El Trafico thriller that similarly bounced them from contention.

That’s created a feeling of déjà vu for the club, five-time MLS Cup winners who are chasing the glory days of old. Getting back to the esteemed heights of the era of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham won’t be easy.

“I’ve seen the group kind of grow together as men and the qualities of the group,” said Vanney. “ … For us is just continuing to grow. We have a lot of very good pieces. We got a group that it’s now connected. They’ve never been connected before in that locker room and trusting each other and working for each other. So, we have a lot to be proud of and I look forward as we continue to build forward.”

LA’s stretch-run surge was fueled by a summer transfer window of center back Martin Caceres and midfielders Riqui Puig and Gaston Brugman all arriving, introducing balance and quality to the group. And the Galaxy will hope to replicate those signing successes over the winter, when key roster-related questions will be resolved in building for 2023.

For now, after they experienced the highs and lows of a rivalry game that’ll go down in MLS postseason lore, Vanney leaves the club’s loyal supporters with a parting message.

“The Galaxy fans have been through the best of days over the years and the worst of days over the years,” Vanney said. “They’ve always stuck to the club, and I think the standard that they hold the club to should be the same standard and higher than we hold ourselves to. But even though they have been hard on the club they’re always behind the club and for that we always appreciate them.”

And following Decision Day heartbreak a year ago, the Galaxy can hold their heads high after pushing the Supporters' Shield champions to the brink.

“The positive thing is comparing last season when we didn’t go to the playoffs, then we came to the semifinal of the conference against the best team in the league these days," said captain Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. "We grew a lot, but for this organization it’s not enough. The standards are as high as they can [be]. Winning trophies, playing finals at least. So yeah, we’re very disappointed.”