By Ridge Mahoney
Not every team that is supposed to win but doesn’t has choked; however, the Galaxy is labeled thusly for its performance against FC Dallas Sunday night in the Western Conference final.
FCD’s speed, confidence, poise and determination swept it to victory, so nothing can be subtracted from the winning team. After beating the defending champ, Real Salt Lake at home, 2-1, FCD garnered a 1-1 tie at Rio Tinto Stadium, where 11 of 15 visitors this season had lost and none had won. Handed another road game against the top seed in the stadium where FCD had lost the season finale three weeks earlier, it weathered some early pressure to convert a few chances ruthlessly, and cantered home in the final minutes.
So, yes, FCD deserves to reach the final. But still it must be said the Galaxy choked by losing its drive and belief, by foundering upon being denied by keeper Kevin Hartman before and after FCD opened the scoring in the 26th minute, by falling a step shorter than it did last year when it lost on penalty kicks to RSL in MLS Cup 2009.
On a slick, ersatz surface at Qwest Field, without its injured starting keeper for the majority of the match, the disappointment 12 months ago of losing via 12-yard kicks is bitterly heartbreaking yet tolerable. Sunday night, repelled by Hartman’s saves and heroic defensive stands, the Galaxy sputtered, wheezed and ultimately conked out long before the final whistle. Whether drained by FCD’s pace, or disheartened by its own ineptitude, or discouraged by a George John takedown that wasn’t whistled, the Galaxy degenerated into a confused, clueless unit as the second half unfolded.
Backed by one of the loudest sellout crowds to see a playoff game at HDC, the Galaxy needed only a goal to regain the upper hand after falling behind. It failed to score and lost, 3-0. Nine minutes into the second half, after a turnover its resistance disintegrated, and John – who stayed in the attack after a set play had been partly cleared – raced into the six-yard box unmarked to slam home a second goal.
There were still 35 minutes to play, on the scoreboard anyway. On the field one team gradually switched off. Before Marvin Chavez stroked home FCD’s third goal in the 73rd minute, the Galaxy had capitulated. Still the players ran, and still they dueled, but without conviction that they could actually get it done. The leaders, Landon Donovan and David Beckham and one or two others might have believed, but they were in the minority. The thousands of fans who left early mirrored the mindset of their players.
Heading into the game, FCD’s speed of play had been listed as one possible advantage for the visitor, and Coach Schellas Hyndman ramped up that element by starting Atiba Harris up top instead of Jeff Cunningham. In the right midfield slot often filled by Harris, Hyndman injected the tricky and speedy Martin Chavez, whose bursts and dribbles drew clusters of challengers and opened up great gaps for David Ferreira, who used his touches and spaces to breathtaking effect. In a battle of MVP finalists, Edson Buddle didn’t play badly, but Ferreira dazzled.
The element most glaringly devoid in the Galaxy performance was strength of will, not workrate or technique or tactical acumen. FCD displayed plenty of all four. Hyndman’s 40 years of martial-arts study – sure to be a popular topic in the next few days – has greatly influenced his coaching, and yet while his players do cite their powerful mentality as an important element, it’s just one reason for their success this season. In a league renowned for its athleticism, FCD came out ahead in heart and soul and mind.
Los Angeles had not been headed in beating Seattle, 3-1, on aggregate in the conference semifinals, which included a 1-0 victory at Qwest Field. Last night it started briskly enough but once adversity arose, it succumbed rather meekly.