CARSON, Calif. – If the LA Galaxy 's lineup lacked the starpower, the experience, the magnitude of the side Cruz Azul fielded for Tuesday night's Leagues Cup semifinal, it certainly was able to match the Cementeros' fight, giving the Mexico City powerhouse a tighter battle than perhaps was expected.
LA head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, balancing a roster through a thicket of vital Major League Soccer encounters, blended a handful of regulars with little-used reserves and one debutant against Cruz Azul's first-choice XI, and the difference wasn't so great.
The Mexican club came out on top, 2-1, at Dignity Health Sports Park on gorgeous goals at the start of each half by Jose Madueña and Orbelin Pineda. So Cruz Azul advance to the Sept. 18 final in Las Vegas against Tigres UANL – but the Galaxy came out quite proud of their effort.
Emil Cuello scored a brilliant equalizer late in the first half, big Galaxy II center back Nick Depuy kept star striker Milton Caraglio under wraps most of the way, and LA came within a couple of huge stops by veteran El Tri goalkeeper Jesus Corona – the biggest on Daniel Steres' point-blank volley from one of several gorgeous set-piece deliveries from Efrain Alvarez – from pulling off an upset before a decidedly pro-Cruz Azul crowd of 20,135.
“I'm proud,” said forward Chris Pontius, who had a good chance for an equalizer near the finish in his first start since May. “We stood up and didn't back down to them. They do so well moving the ball, so we understood that there were going to be moments in the game where we were on the back foot a little bit, but we knew when we broke out that we could hit them pretty good.
“I don't think we were clean enough in some of those moments, especially in the first half, [but] this is a great experience, especially for the younger players.”
Schelotto, whose priority is getting LA back to the postseason after two straight misses, used a second-choice lineup in the Galaxy’s fourth game in 10 days and with an El Trafico showdown with LAFC looming Sunday (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN1).
“It's very hard to keep everyone and keep playing the same way during four games,” Schelotto said. “Over the year, maybe you can organize better the team, but we need the time and feel the more important thing we have in this year is the playoff for MLS. ... I know it's important, [this] game. It's important to compete with team from Mexico, but I think we compete very well. I think we deserve to tie today.
“But maybe in the future, when you organize the whole year, you can organize better if you know [at the start of the year that] you're going to play [in Leagues Cup].”
There was much that Schelotto liked. He acknowledged that “maybe [Cruz Azul] manage the ball a little better than us, but they took their shots from outside the box. They never could disorganize our backline. For that, I think we deserve a little more. I think we deserve a tie today.”
Depuy, who stands 6-foot-4, was particularly impressive.
“It was a tough battle up there, with their forward,” said Steres, who played right back after picking up an early red card in Saturday's MLS draw with Seattle Sounders FC. “[Caraglio] is a big, strong guy, and they were more direct than I thought, and Nick did a good job of handling the physicality. He's a big guy himself, and he was solid back there and almost had a goal [on a header in the 90th minute].”
Dave Romney defended Schelotto's roster choices – “if you play Ibra and he gets hurt, then it's 'why did you play him for a game that means nothing?’” – and said LA's performance “just speaks to our depth. We're at least a spot deep at every position.”
“We've definitely got depth,” he said. “We've got guys fighting, and when we give them opportunities, they're ready to play. We saw a guy like Nick step up from the second team, as well as guys that haven't been getting minutes. Emil had a good goal. Efra played well. We were all ready to step up to the challenge, and hopefully [that will] help us going until the end of the season.”