CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy took a one-goal lead into the final 10 minutes of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal opener against Monterrey 11 months ago, pushed forward looking for a second, and watched it all go wrong.
That 2-1 home defeat was followed by a 1-0 loss in Mexico, on another late goal, and LA's hopes for a CCL title and a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup were dead. But the answers they found among the ruins paved the way to Wednesday night's victory against visiting Club Tijuana in their quarterfinal first leg.
Samuel's 11th-minute strike provided an advantage the Galaxy made sure to hold onto as the Xoloitzcuintles applied heavy pressure from halftime until the final whistle.
“I think we learn. It's the same [LA] group of last year. We learn,” said midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, whose 68th-minute goal-line clearance of Javier Gandolfi's header was pivotal in the 1-0 triumph. “At halftime, Bruce [Arena] said no matter what, we had to go with 1-0. If we can do another goal, that's fine, but otherwise we win the game with 1-0.”
It required a few key saves from Jaime Penedo, the biggest a scramble to knock away a potential Omar Gonzalez own-goal after the goalkeeper's flailing stab at a Darío Benedetto cross ricocheted off the center back's foot and rolled slowly toward the goal line.
The Xolos created five dangerous scoring chances in the second half, but LA defended well while on their heels, avoiding the errors that cost them against Monterrey.
“From what I remember last year, we kept on trying to push the game, and we had players bombing forward, but this time was totally different,” Gonzalez said. “We had the right mindset, everyone was on the same page ... Tijuana got a second wind, and they started pushing players forward, they started pressing us even harder, playing even harder, and I thought we did well to keep them at bay, to not allow them too much even though they were pressuring us like crazy.
“The fact that this turned out different from last year, the feeling is great.”
Tijuana's fitness advantage showed up after halftime, and the Galaxy struggled to stay with them.
“It was important [that we manage the game wisely],” Landon Donovan said. “It's frustrating because we're not fit yet, but we have to remember that we're one game into our season. Tijuana is 10, 11 games in, so there's a big difference there, it's a big advantage. ... You can't overstate the fitness factor. And you could see in the last 30 minutes, they had a lot of energy, they kept going. Our guys were tired, and we held on until the end.
“I was happy with how we kept our heads and, although we were tired, we kept ourselves focused and made sure we didn't concede a goal.”