Galaxy wins MLS opener, 2-0, over the Fire

Galaxy wins MLS opener, 2-0, over the Fire
Fire defender Lovel Palmer and Galaxy forward Jose Villarreal collide while trying to head the ball during the first half. (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

The Galaxy turned 20 on Friday. And they invited 27,000 of their closest friends to the party at StubHub Center, where they raised a championship banner, shot off fireworks and unveiled a 5,100-square-foot scoreboard.

They also managed to squeeze in a soccer game and that too proved worth celebrating, with second-half goals from Jose Villarreal and Robbie Keane lifting the Galaxy to 2-0 victory over the Chicago Fire.

Yet it was a game — and a party — that almost never happened, with Major League Soccer and its players' union waiting until Wednesday night to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement and prevent a lockout.

“We wouldn't have had the support we need if we had a strike or if the season was delayed,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. “It's important that we got the season started on time.”

But all that seemed like ancient history by the time fans began lining up outside the stadium gates more than three hours before kickoff.

"I'm super happy that they're playing," said Arthur Grumbine of Whittier, a first-time season-ticket holder. "I've been psyched waiting for opening day. They're my seats now."

A refugee from the NFL, Grumbine came to soccer through the World Cup then got hooked on the Galaxy during last fall's run to the MLS Cup title.

"I'm just crazy about it now," said Grumbine, who was tailgating with relatives. "I love it because it's local."


Inside the stadium, Gina Konwiser was experiencing similar emotions. She attended several games after her son started playing soccer four years ago, then got season tickets this winter.

"It's exciting," she said. "They make it family friendly."

The Galaxy was given the honor of kicking off the MLS season because it is not only one of the league's 10 original teams, but it is also the league's most successful franchise with five titles, including three in the last four seasons. But the lineup Arena started Friday was missing several key contributors from the one he used in December's MLS Cup final.

Gone are Landon Donovan, the league record-holder in goals, assists and championships, and midfield enforcer Marcelo Sarvas; Donovan to retirement and Sarvas to an off-season trade with Colorado. In their places Arena used Villarreal and Kenney Walker, who combined to start just four games a year ago.

Also on the sidelines was goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who missed the team's final preseason game with an undisclosed injury but was benched Friday, a TV station reported, because his contract situation is unsettled. Brian Rowe started in his place.

"He is healthy," confirmed Arena, who did not elaborate on the TV report. "We thought Brian was the right guy to go in today's game."

But developing chemistry within that new group will take time, as the Galaxy proved during a scoreless first half in which it dominated in every significant statistical category, only to lose several good scoring chances to passes that sailed high or wide — sometimes both — of their intended targets.

"All the players that we lost, experienced players, there's going to be more emphasis certainly on me to lead this team," said Keane, whose leadership boiled over into anger in the 78th minute after a Stefan Ishizaki pass missed him at the far post.

By then the Galaxy already had the only score it would need thanks to Villarreal, the most active player on the night whose work rate was rewarded with the season's first goal in the 65th minute.

The play started with Ishizaki sending a long cross in from the right side, only to have the ball find Chicago's Jeff Larentowicz instead. But when Larentowicz

tried to clear the pass, teammate Lovel Palmer stepped in the way and the ball bounced off his chest to Villarreal, who calmly sent a left-footed shot across the goal and into the net at the far corner for his fourth career goal and first in nearly two years.

Keane, who had 19 goals in an MVP season in 2014, got his first one of the new year in the 81st minute. Baggio Husidic set up the score, heading an Omar Gonzalez pass back to Keane, whose blistering right-footed volley closed out the Galaxy's 20th consecutive win at home.

Twitter: @kbaxter11