Sebastian Lletget's first MLS start wasn't supposed to happen, not yet, but he stepped into the LA Galaxy's lineup at the last minute and responded with a terrific performance punctuated by a fine goal.
The 22-year-old midfielder, signed last month on a free transfer from West Ham United, was dangerous through much of an 83-minute stint Saturday night, adding a dimension that's been missing from the Galaxy's attack in a 1-1 draw at Columbus.
His 14th-minute goal, possible because of a heady maneuver to beat veteran defender Michael Parkhurst, gave LA (5-5-7) an early lead that they couldn't hold onto as the Crew (4-6-5) attacked aggressively, mostly from the flanks, after the break.
“It was a very impressive showing,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena told media at MAPFRE Stadium. “He did a very good job, held the ball up, passing was good, got out of tight spaces. ... He played very well.”
Lletget was supposed to be on the bench, but slated starting forward Edson Buddle strained his groin during warmups following a 2-hour, 5-minute weather delay, and Arena turned to the attacking midfielder, asking him to play behind Jose Villarreal in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
“It was quite quick, really,” Lletget said on Time Warner SportsNet's postgame telecast. “[Arena] was like, 'Can you start for us?' and I didn't even have time to say yes. I was definitely not going to say no.”
Lletget, who had come on as a substitute twice for LA in his first month with the club and started last week for the Galaxy II reserve side in USL play, was a chief catalyst in arguably the team's best half this season, impressing with his ability to exploit space and connect with teammates, qualities that have been missing from LA's injury-riddled attack through the first three months of the MLS season.
He gave LA the advantage after left back Robbie Rogers, returning after missing the past five games with an Achilles issue, made a superb diagonal run from the left flank to the top of Columbus' box, then nudged the ball forward when he was confronted by two Crew defenders.
Lletget handled it with aplomb, letting the ball roll past to create space against Parkhurst, who appeared to expect Lletget to cut inside, then curling the ball low and just inside the near post, ahead of goalkeeper Steve Clark.
“To be honest, it's a little bit of blur,” Lletget said of the goal. “Honestly, I forgot how the ball got there. I just remember turning and then just thinking goal, and then the finish.”
LA also got fine showings from Rogers, who should have done better after setting himself up with an open shot just before halftime, and central midfielder Mika Väyrynen. Additionally, Omar Gonzalez was dominant at the back, greatly limiting MLS scoring leader Kei Kamara's impact and preventing Columbus from taking a first-half shot on goal.
The Galaxy, whose road winless streak hit 15 games, couldn't hold off the Crew in the second half, as Federico Higuain was more effective getting on the ball and teaming with Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay to create several good chances.
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Higuain netted the equalizer in the 66th minute, slotting a chip from Finlay after Rogers turned the wrong way on Tony Tchani's ball up the right flank and Leonardo overplayed Finlay just wide of the box, sliding in as the winger stepped past.
It was the sixth time the Galaxy, who have taken 11 leads this season, have conceded an advantage.
Still, Arena was happy with the point.
“We had a good night,” he said on the postgame telecast. “Overall, it as good. Any time you have a delay of two hours, two and a half hours, like we did, it's never easy. ... We knew Columbus would press [in the second half], and we made a few mistakes on the equalizer, but you can't complain. It's a good point on the road.”