The Galaxy’s three-week trip to Orlando, Fla., for the MLS Is Back tournament last month was a disaster. The team didn’t win any of the three games it played, lost its star striker to injury and heard its coach accuse it of quitting before limping home carrying the worst start in franchise history.
But instead of derailing the season, that performance might actually wind up saving it because the team was so bad in Florida, forward Ethan Zubak said, every player wound up taking a “long, hard look in the mirror.” And that was reflected in the way the Galaxy played Saturday in a 2-0 win over LAFC in a hot, humid and empty Banc of California Stadium.
“It hurt a lot in Orlando, for sure,” said Zubak, whose first MLS goal proved to be the only score the Galaxy would need. “It was tough to go over for that much time and come out of there without what we wanted. What this team needed was a little bit of a fire under their butt.
“The talent is here, so many good players. We just needed something to kick us into gear.”
LAFC, meanwhile, might remain stuck in neutral for a while because its most devastating loss Saturday came a half hour before the game ended when captain Carlos Vela hobbled off the field favoring his left knee. It looked like “an MCL-type situation” to coach Bob Bradley, who said Vela will undergo tests to determine the severity of the injury.
That likely will keep Vela, the league’s reigning MVP, out of Wednesday’s game with Real Salt Lake — and could sideline him much longer. But even before the injury, Vela, playing for the first time in five months, wasn’t much of a factor with the Galaxy holding him to one shot and 17 passes.
LAFC, which sold out its first 39 MLS games at the Banc, was forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to cover most of the 22,500 seats with huge tarps Saturday. But the stadium was far from quiet.
In an effort to create some normalcy, LAFC followed its regular game-day routine by blaring music and interviews over the stadium sound system during warmups and noting substitutions and yellow cards over the PA system during the game — despite the fact no one was there to hear them. However, the generic crowd noise pumped into the stadium sounded more like a movie soundtrack than real fans, creating noise but no passion.
It was a strange atmosphere for a rivalry game.
“It’s a huge change from what we’re used to here at the Banc,” defender Tristan Blackmon said. “Usually the crowds here are rocking from before we get here until after the game is over.”
Blackmon said the weather — it was muggy and 93 degrees at kickoff — didn’t help.
“We weren’t as sharp as we normally are,” he said. “So maybe that was one of the factors.”
Maybe. But the biggest factor was the Galaxy, who turned in their best effort of the season, frustrating LAFC by clogging the passing lanes, and by bunching their back line and midfielders deep in their defensive end. Yet it was a defensive mistake that allowed Zubak to give the Galaxy a lead it would never lose, racing unmarked to the edge of the six-yard box to head home a long cross from Julian Araujo in the 26th minute.
The fake crowd cheered as the Galaxy celebrated.
The second half was even worse for LAFC (2-1-3), with Sebastian Lletget doubling the lead nine minutes after intermission. The goal was again made possible by Araujo, whose low one-hop cross from the right wing set Lletget up for a right-footed volley and his first score of the season.
Four minutes later, a trainer helped Vela to the locker room, the fake crowd oddly cheering his exit.
For the Galaxy (1-3-2), the victory — their first at the Banc — ended a five-game winless streak. The shutout was the first by either side in the eight-game series between the neighborhood rivals. It also helped ease the sting of a 6-2 loss to LAFC in Florida.
“We knocked them off their high horse,” Lletget said. “Hopefully we shut them up a little bit.”
At least they can look themselves in the mirror now.