At the end, after the final whistle, the faces told the story, delighted faces, distraught faces.
Over here were Mauricio Cienfuegos and Eduardo Hurtado, wearing smiles that stretched from El Salvador to Ecuador.
Over there were Digital Takawira and Preki and Mo Johnston--the Zimbabwean, the Yugoslav and the Scot--slumped on the field at Arrowhead Stadium, staring straight ahead, disbelieving, almost in shock.
A dramatic 2-1 shootout victory by the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday afternoon propelled the team into Major League Soccer’s championship game and ended the season for the Kansas City Wiz.
Smiling faces on one side, long faces on the other.
It was a game that lived up to its billing, an incident-packed encounter in which neither team was willing to yield an inch. The running was nonstop, the tackles were ferocious. The commitment was total.
Just ask Kansas City defenders Scott Uderitz and Uche Okafor, who smacked into each other in the air while trying to keep the ball from Cobi Jones and cracked heads hard. Uderitz recovered, but Okafor was taken to a hospital because of a concussion.
It was that kind of game.
And at the end, after Greg Vanney had watched his shootout attempt roll into the net to clinch the Western Conference title for the Galaxy, the words were difficult to come by, even for the winning team.
Even for Vanney, unlikely ever again to have a game like this.
Vanney’s hard tackle on Preki in the 69th minute was judged by referee Zimmermann Boulos to be a foul. Boulos pointed to the penalty spot and was immediately engulfed by irate Galaxy players.
To no avail. His decision stood. Preki stepped up and hammered a low shot that goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who already had brought off four incredible saves, somehow managed to stop with his feet. But Preki pounced on the rebound, and Campos was unable to stop that shot.
Afterward, Preki said the referee had been correct.
“They all complained about the foul, but Vanney was all over me,” he said. “He was holding me, pushing me. You couldn’t see it unless you were next to me.”
But in a game that Kansas City dominated, having three apparent goals disallowed on offside calls or other infractions, the Galaxy fought back.
Vanney, who had won Game 1 of the best-of-three conference finals at the Rose Bowl Thursday with an astonishing 25-yard shot, showed that it was no fluke. In the 77th minute, Cienfuegos tapped a free kick into his path and the former UCLA Bruin unleashed another rocket.
This one flew into the Kansas City net from almost 30 yards, catching Wiz goalkeeper Garth Lagerwey by surprise and tying the score. It stayed that way until the shootout. Earlier, Campos had moved out of goal to play as a forward, so David Kramer was left to keep the Wiz at bay in the one-on-one encounters. This is how it went:
--Lagerwey saved Arash Noamouz’s shot for the Galaxy, but Mark Chung steered his effort wide of the left post.
--Robin Fraser scored for Los Angeles, and Kramer saved Preki’s shot.
--Jones, who had seen one of his shots in regulation bounce off the left post, lifted his shot over the crossbar, after which Paul Wright scored for the Wiz to tie it.
--Cienfuegos scored to restore the Galaxy’s lead, but Mike Sorber saw his shot saved by Kramer.
--Vanney, with a chance to win the game, did so.
“I thought I was going to be the goat there for a minute,” Vanney said. “It [the penalty kick] was a questionable call. Luckily, I got my chance to hit a free kick. I hit it well. I’m not sure, but I think the keeper was going the other way.
“I just asked the Lord for an opportunity to try to win it for us and I got it. I was fortunate that the shot slipped by him [Lagerwey] and trickled into the net.”
Once it did, the entire Galaxy team, coaching staff and support staff sprinted onto the field and swamped Vanney. With the crowd of 11,041 finally silenced after keeping up near nonstop noise for 90-plus minutes, the Galaxy celebrated, dancing in the center circle and posing with the trophy presented by Alan Rothenberg, MLS’ chairman and founder.
For Dan Calichman, the Galaxy captain, it was a bittersweet moment. His team had reached the final, but he will have to miss the championship game next Sunday against Washington D.C. United at Foxboro Stadium near Boston after receiving his third yellow card of the playoffs.
“I’m thrilled that we’re in the championship game,” he said. “It’s what we wanted all year. I’m a little upset, obviously, that I picked up my third yellow. I think it was a controversial call. On the play, Paul Wright actually pushed me back then I pushed him back and the ref called it. It was a silly call.”
The Galaxy might appeal the ruling, but Bill Sage, senior vice president for operations for MLS, said there is no chance of it being reversed.
Meanwhile, outside the tumult of the Galaxy locker room, Coach Lothar Osiander was reflective.
“I’m delighted with the whole team,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think we were the better team.”