The Galaxy and LAFC hadn’t played in more than four months before taking the field Monday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced MLS to suspend its season last winter.
Yet both picked up pretty much where they left off, with LAFC dominating the Houston Dynamo everywhere but on the scoreboard in a 3-3 tie that kept it unbeaten while the frustration continued for the winless Galaxy and its star Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who scored his first MLS goal but missed a penalty kick and two other promising chances in a 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers.
The games, part of the made-for-TV MLS Is Back tournament, were played with no fans and even less atmosphere at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports and both teams seemed unsettled by the circumstances at the start. Both were also missing their best players with LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the league’s reigning MVP, skipping the tournament to remain with his pregnant wife in California while Galaxy captain Jonathan dos Santos stayed home after undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia.
But Vela’s absence gave Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez a chance to shine, with Rossi picking up a goal and an assist while Rodriguez’s first MLS score capped LAFC’s rally from a two-goal halftime deficit.
“I was looking for that goal since I got here. It came today and it makes me happy,” said Rodriguez, 20, who joined LAFC 11 months ago. “It gives me confidence to keep growing and getting better.”
Although the game was the first in 126 days for LAFC (1-0-2), the longest pause in the franchise’s brief history – even the team’s first offseason break lasted just 121 days – it controlled the pace and possession from the opening whistle, outshooting Houston 23-9, holding the ball for more than an hour and completing more than twice as many passes as Houston attempted.
The rust of the long layoff showed on defense though, with mistakes leading to pair of first-half goals by Memo Rodriguez and another by Alberth Elis that gave Houston a 3-1 lead.
LAFC’s first-half score came from Bradley Wright-Phillips, who slid onto a low cross from Rossi and got just enough of his right boot on the ball to deflect it in for his first goal in more than a year.
“I was like a kid going back to school,” said Wright-Phillips, who was making his LAFC debut after missing the first two games of the season rehabbing from surgery for a sports hernia. “I was happy I got the start.”
The second half was all LAFC, with Rossi halving the deficit in the 63rd minute by drilling a right-footed shot from the left wing into the side netting. The Dynamo sagged noticeably after that goal and six minutes later Rodriguez completed the comeback, running on to a Latif Blessing feed and beating Houston keeper Marko Maric to the far side from nearly the same spot to tie the score.
“In the second half we just were able to push the game forward,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “As always [it’s] those little details: how big are the windows, what passes do you make, touches around the box. But when you think about not playing for this amount of time, there’s a lot of things that we’re happy about.”
The Galaxy, meanwhile, had little to celebrate.
Hernández, who didn’t have a shot on goal in his first two games with the Galaxy, got his chances Monday but couldn’t take advantage, rolling a penalty shot right at Portland keeper Steve Clark in the first half and putting two other shots over the crossbar in the opening minutes of the second.
And Portland made him pay for those mistakes, with Jeremy Ebobisse putting his team in front in the 59th minute. The play took a while to develop, with Portland working the ball around the box before Sebastian Blanco drew Galaxy keeper David Bingham off his line and slipped a pass to Ebobisse. With a defender draped over him, Ebobisse stuck his knee out to redirect the ball in.
Blanco then doubled the Portland lead with a solo effort seven minutes later.
Portland’s Dario Zuparic was sent off after drawing a second yellow a few minutes later, leaving the Timbers shorthanded and giving the Galaxy (0-2-1) some life – which Hernández turned into a goal, spinning and burying a right-footed shot from the top of the six-yard box in the 88th minute. But that was all the Galaxy could get.
“We didn’t deserve to lose tonight,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “We had opportunities, we miss a penalty, we hit the post, Chicha finds the ball in the middle of the box and misses.
“They had two shots on goal and scored.”
Hernández was of a different opinion.
“We finished the game as we were supposed to start,” he said. “Sometimes the chemistry isn’t there. Sometimes the individual performances aren’t good, starting with me.”
As he jogged back up the field after scoring his goal, Hernández pointed both index fingers to the sky, then blessed himself, as if hoping the goal would finally bring salvation for he and his team.
It didn’t happen on Monday.
“It’s not the greatest to score your first goal with a loss like this one,” he said. “And you miss a penalty. I told the lads this one was on me.”