The LA Galaxy's latest end-of-game collapse cost them the No. 1 seed for the CONCACAF Champions League's knockout phase and a chance to avoid Mexican opposition until at least the semifinals.
Rolando Blackburn's stoppage-time finish, a goal aided by several defensive breakdowns, gave dominant Comunicaciones a 1-1 draw in Guatemala City late Wednesday night, and the Galaxy did not hide their disgust afterward.
The Group D winners, who with a victory would have claimed the top seed and set up a showdown with Western Conference rival Seattle in next year's quarterfinals, instead must take on reigning Liga MX titlist Santos Laguna, one of four MLS-vs.-Mexico showdowns in the round of eight.
“It's becoming a broken record,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan, who guided LA while head coach Bruce Arena worked with the first-choice players ahead of Sunday's MLS regular-season finale at Sporting Kansas City, told media at Estadio Cementos Progreso. “Managing the last three minutes has been a challenge for our group.
“You would think over the course of a year where we'd been under those conditions, we'd do better. We didn't manage it well, knowing that we had limited time left and needed to kill the game. We failed. They made one play on the last play of the game. It's a bitter feeling. We didn't make the play that should have been made.”
The Galaxy (2-0-2), who managed just two legitimate chances while holding off Comunicaciones for 90-minutes plus, went ahead when Alan Gordon turned on a blocked Todd Dunivant shot in the 84th minute and put away his fifth goal of the competition and 10th of the year in all competitions.
It ought to have been enough to win, but the Galaxy's recent history says otherwise. Just two and a half weeks ago, Chad Barrett scored in the 93rd minute to lift Seattle to a 1-1 draw with the Galaxy. LA dominated D.C. United in late March but lost, 1-0, on a 93rd-minute Chris Pontius goal.
The Galaxy have dropped a dozen points in MLS and Champions League play this year on goals conceded after the 75th minute. Since the start of the 2012 season, LA have lost more than 50 points – plus a playoff game and two Champions League quarterfinal matches against Monterrey in 2013 – after conceding 59 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, with 22 points lost from 17 stoppage-time goals.
It is a long-serving trend they have worked diligently to correct, with middling success.
Blackburn's goal came in the final seconds of stoppage time during, naturally, the 93rd minute. Agustin Herrera beat a Dunivant/Baggio Husidic double-team on the right flank, streaked to the edge of the box, then delivered a low ball between Gordon's legs and to the far post. Blackburn streaked unimpeded to an open space, with no response from LA's defense, and merely had to tap home Herrera's feed.
What's the answer?
“Make sure that we have the right players in the right spots with experience that make those plays,” Sarachan said. “Tonight, we actually had a few experienced players that didn't do it. If I had the answer, I'd be a genius. We talk about it, we rehearse it, and when the moment comes, we failed again.”
Gordon said that “what's done is done” and that the Galaxy must move forward after what the team considered defeat.
“We've just got to dust ourselves off, and on to the next game,” he said. “We're professionals. Part of being mentally strong is handling tough losses, and we have an important task at hand now. We've got to get a good result; we have to win in Kansas City [to claim the No. 2 seed in the West and a bye into the conference semifinals]. That's our next objective.”
Sarachan did not want to ponder what LA will face when they take on Santos next March.
“That's kind of far away,” he said. “We're proud that we advanced in the tournament, we're proud that we won the group, but we're disappointed that we didn't finish as the No. 1 seed. We felt we had it in our grasp. It didn't happen, and now we're going to be ready for the opponent that we're matched up with. Now that I know that it is Santos, we know the teams from Mexico can be very difficult. That's quite a ways away. We'll be prepared when that time comes."