It was a muted celebration in the LA Galaxy locker room on Saturday night at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Their 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake clinched an Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs berth, ending a two-year drought that bookended a run of missed postseasons in four of the last five seasons. But head coach Greg Vanney has high expectations for his club and his players are apt to follow suit.
"As I just said to the guys, we all signed up here to change the trajectory of this club. It’s the best club in MLS, but it’s been struggling for a number of years," said Vanney, who took over in 2021 after leading Toronto FC. "All of us signed up here with the responsibility to turn this club back into the greatest club in the league. We took one step towards that tonight – it’s a small step – to get ourselves into the playoffs."
Prior to the 2017 season, the Galaxy had missed the postseason just three times – from 2006-08 – and the club’s five MLS Cups are a league record. However, that recent stretch of early vacations had traditional contenders on the outside of those conversations.
Just getting into the postseason won't be enough, goalkeeper Jonathan Bond said, with a 4W-1L-5D end-of-season stretch securing their postseason return in the Western Conference.
“It was an encouraging kind of reaction because everyone wasn’t kind of hugging and celebrating and going crazy in the locker room," Bond said. "We know we’ve got another level or levels to go and to hit. We wanted to win because we’re obviously not only just looking to make the playoffs, but we felt like we could have maybe pushed for third or fourth based on the results that happened earlier in the day."
Against RSL, LA experienced a microcosm of some of the inconsistencies they've faced all season.
In the first half, midseason signing Riqui Puig's penalty was stopped by RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath. Minutes later, Sergio Cordova scored a header at the other end and the Galaxy found themselves trailing 1-0 going into halftime.
Then in the second half, LA earned another penalty after it was determined Chicharito was fouled in the box following Video Review. Douglas Costa converted the ensuing 68th-minute equalizer, the high-water mark for a team that's failed to convert on five of their league-high 14 penalties this season.
Some goalkeeping heroics from Bond in second-half stoppage time sealed the result, and LA will avoid Decision Day heartbreak like a season ago when their 3-3 draw with Minnesota United FC – combined with a late RSL goal at Sporting Kansas City – ended their postseason bid.
"Greg mentioned, and a few of the other boys that have been here for a while, that it has really been a difficult hurdle to overcome in the last eight or nine years," said Bond. " … We don’t want to overlook what we achieved, but at the same time that isn’t what this club is used to. This club is used to going to the final and winning the trophy and we’re very aware of that."
Now, LA's attention turns toward a Decision Day trip to already-eliminated Houston Dynamo FC. They could rise as high as third in the West with a win, securing a home postseason spot that comes with it.
“I just said to the guys, congratulations, but we have to go to Houston like it’s a playoff game," said Vanney. "Because sometimes I think in this league, there is a tendency for teams to make it to the playoffs, and then the foot comes off the gas a little bit. There’s a little bit of a relaxation.
"I saw it firsthand from our team in Toronto back in 2016 when it was the first time in club history, and we got into the finals, and we were terrible the next three games and we’re out. Just like that, right? So, we have to keep the mentality."