CARSON, Calif. — LA Galaxy's 2-1 defeat to Cruz Azul in Tuesday night's Leagues Cup semifinal at Dignity Health Sports Park greatly simplifies the stretch drive to their season and their chief aim: getting into the MLS Cup Playoffs and seeing where that might take them.
The Galaxy (13-11-1) are in a tight Western Conference battle for a postseason berth — and favorable seeding, if possible — and face a difficult final month and a half of the campaign, with five road games among the eight remaining encounters, starting with the showdown against crosstown rival LAFC, the runaway Supporters' Shield leaders, Sunday (10:30 PM ET | FS1, TSN1) at Banc of California Stadium.
The Galaxy's participation in the new tournament for MLS and Liga MX clubs made for a crowded summer stretch — Tuesday's encounter was their fourth game in 10 days — and led head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto to leave some of his most important players, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Jonathan Dos Santos and Cristian Pavon, off the 18-man game-day list.
A win Tuesday would have meant a date with Tigres UANL in the Sept. 18 final in Las Vegas, a game that would have seen the Galaxy travel between home games Sept. 15 against Sporting Kansas City and Sept. 21 vs. the Montreal Impact.
“We've got six games next month already, so it would have been tough, and we would have probably played another ‘B’ lineup [in Las Vegas],” said left back Dave Romney, who made just his 10th first-team appearance of the season. “But still, they guys who were playing this game, these are their games, you know? We want to play as many as we can.”
Nonetheless, the focus is now entirely on the last eight matches of the regular season and the Western Conference race. LA sit third, one point behind Minnesota United FC and one in front of Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC. Only five points separate the second-place team and the eighth-place team and a string of wins could push the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City — another six points back — into the thick of the fight.
Sunday's El Trafico clash at Banc of California Stadium, about a dozen miles north along the Harbor Freeway from the Galaxy's South Bay digs, is massive, and not just because it's developing into MLS's fiercest rivalry.
“We've got a pretty big game on Sunday, [and] we need points to get playoffs,” Schelotto said. “We want to beat [LAFC] because it's a derby ... but we are going to play a game to get playoffs, too. So it's very important.”
It's a pivotal game in the derby. LAFC (18-3-4), who own a 16-point advantage in the West and a 13-point edge in the Shield standings, haven't beaten the Galaxy in four meetings.
Ibrahimovic netted a hat trick and the Galaxy held on for a 3-2 win, in a game not nearly as close as the score suggests, in last month's clash in Carson. LAFC want this one badly.
“They're very good. They're very good,” said Chris Pontius, who played up top against Cruz Azul. “We've got to go in there and work some magic. But we managed to do it here [on July 19]. We stepped on them pretty good here. I don't think they had seen that this year.
“I'm hoping we can do the same at their place on Sunday.”