CARSON, Calif. — Efrain Alvarez made the most of his first Major League Soccer start Thursday night, setting up the first of two late Zlatan Ibrahimovic goals in a 2-0 triumph over visiting Toronto FC to punctuate another in a series of strong outings.
The gifted midfielder from East Los Angeles, who turned 17 on June 19, was a vital figure as LA bounced back from a difficult first half to slowly take charge en route to their first home victory since April 28 — one that likely would not have materialized without his agile cross that Ibrahimovic nodded home in the 75th minute.
He was one of two teens on the field for the Galaxy, playing in front of Julian Araujo, making his sixth start at right back.
“We are very happy today because we have on the field two players [who are] 17 years old, Efrain and Julian,” head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said to start his postgame media session at Dignity Health Sports Park. “We need to win today, because we have the stadium full [for the club's annual Fourth of July festivities], we're coming from the loss [last weekend] in San Jose, and we have an expectation about the game today. I feel like they are professional. I think the team played very well and support our players, like Julian and Efra, to play and give the soccer they have.”
Araujo gave a fine performance on both sides of the ball, nearly giving the Galaxy an early lead with a 22nd-minute shot that struck the post. And Alvarez's play after halftime, when LA began pushing forward to find opportunities that didn't materialize in the first 45 minutes, helped make the difference.
He set up Ibrahimovic for a chest-and-volley that just cleared the crossbar in the 62nd minute, then set up the first goal 13 minutes later. He collected a pass from Joe Corona and lofted a cross from the left wing that found the Swede near the left post. The header floated over Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg and nestled just inside the right post.
It didn't surprise the Galaxy's biggest name.
“I've said he's the biggest talent in this league, and he's ready to play,” Ibrahimovic said. “He's only 17, and I believe in this league if you're 16 or 17 you can be ready to play.”
Alvarez, a regular for Mexico's under-17 national team, had come off the bench six times in MLS play this year and played the full 90 in both of the club's U.S. Open Cup outings. He played a vital role in both goals in the Galaxy's season-opening victory over Chicago and tallied twice in a win over amateurs Orange County FC in the fourth round of the Open Cup.
He won the starting assignment with a strong performance in the 3-0 California Clasico loss to San Jose at Stanford.
“When we organized the team, we saw him really good in the second half in San Jose,” Schelotto said. “So after the game we were talking, and we say he needs to play the next game. I think the best thing I could see about him [today] was he always try to get the ball and do something.
“Even sometimes where he could lose the ball, one minute after he have the ball. Even when things [were] not going really good for himself, he [was able] to keep the line and ask for the ball.”
Alvarez, a Galaxy academy product who signed with the first team last August, was excited to be on the field from the start of the match.
“I was very happy I got to start, and that's something I've been waiting for the last two years or so I've been with the second team,” he said. “This is a dream come true, but from here we start, and we've been working more and more and I start trying to get more starts.”
It's just one step among many, Schelotto noted. The Galaxy were without four attacking midfielders: Uriel Antuna is with Mexico's national team at the Concacaf Gold Cup, while Romain Alessandrini, Sebastian Lletget and Chris Pontius are all sidelined with injuries.
“The truth is Efra is playing because we have no Antuna, we have no Romain, we [don't] have all the players [away internationally] or injured ...,” the Argentine coach said. “He's 17, he needs time, and we are working with him for the future, the Galaxy future. We need to give him time, and then he will be the right player [in the future].”