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Galaxy Torched by Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps if Soldier Field had been littered with debris, the Galaxy’s Major League Soccer season might have ended on a different note.

Perhaps if there had been broken glass, crumpled cola cans, nails, bottle caps and bumpy, torn-up turf to deal with, the Galaxy would still be in the MLS playoffs.

After all, they’re used to training on that kind of surface in Pasadena.

But Soldier Field is fault free, and perhaps because of that the Galaxy was beaten by the Chicago Fire, 2-1, in a shootout Friday night and swept out of the Western Conference finals.

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The victory, in front of an MLS playoff-record crowd of 32,744, put the expansion Fire into MLS Cup ’98, the league’s Oct. 25 championship game at the Rose Bowl. The Fire will play the Eastern Conference champion, either two-time defending MLS champion Washington D.C. United or the Columbus Crew.

For the Galaxy, meanwhile, the season is over.

It ended when Polish forward Jerzy Podbrozny steered his attempt past goalkeeper Kevin Hartman in the fifth round of the shootout, sending Fire players, coaches and fans off on a delirious, arm-waving run across the field.

The Galaxy had several chances to win the shootout and thereby tie the best-of-three series at a game apiece. But everything went awry on a warm, blustery night.

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Cobi Jones, shooting first, had his initial effort called back when the five-second shot clock malfunctioned. His second effort rolled wide of the left post.

Hartman and Peter Nowak collided on Nowak’s effort, the ball again rolling wide, so Chicago gained no advantage.

Welton scored, going around Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton to put Los Angeles ahead. The Galaxy stayed in front when Hartman saved Ante Razov’s shot.

But the Galaxy could not score again. Martin Machon, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Greg Vanney each had their attempts saved by Thornton.

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Hartman managed to deny Tom Soehn, but Jesse Marsch scored to pull the Fire even and Podbrozny then netted the game-winner.

All season long--in fact, for three seasons--Galaxy players and coaches have complained about not having an adequate practice facility. In the past week, those complaints have been especially loud.

Denied access to the Rose Bowl because the turf was being protected, the team has been forced to practice in what is essentially a parking lot, the field surrounding the stadium, and that is no way to prepare for a conference championship series.

The players and coaches said so, but nothing was done. In the end, the price was paid.

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Friday’s contest was far more open than Game 1, which Chicago won, 1-0, on an 86th-minute goal by Marsch after defending in numbers all night.

The Fire was more adventurous on Friday and took the lead in the 31st minute. The Galaxy responded almost immediately, however, and had by far the better of the play in the second half. But the goals would not come.

It was Nowak, the Fire’s midfield playmaker, who scored first. A long downfield pass by Chicago defender C.J. Brown found Razov, whose shot was stopped by Hartman. The ball rebounded clear, however, and Nowak hammered it into the back of the Los Angeles net.

Six minutes later, the Galaxy tied the score. Paul Caligiuri passed to Jones on the right flank, Jones lifted a cross into the goal area to an unmarked Danny Pena and Pena fired a shot just inside the left post.

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That was it until the shootout.

“They gave me the opportunity to win the game at the end, and it [his attempt] wasn’t good enough,” said a disconsolate Greg Vanney. “The shootout doesn’t determine who is the better team. You might as well flip a coin at the end of a game. Today wasn’t our day.”

It was Thronton’s night, however.

Chicago’s goalkeeper was flawless in the nets, giving up only Pena’s goal and then coming up big in the shootout.

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“There’s a lot of pressure in the shootout,” he said. “I have to make sure I cover my area and shut them down. It’s been a long journey and we’re very happy to be in the final.”

In a subdued Galaxy locker room, Jones summed up the players’ feelings.

“It’s more disappointing,” he said of losing to a defensive-oriented team than an attacking one. “But that’s the way the game’s played. That’s their style and that’s how they get the job done.

“Looking at everything, I think we have the better players, but I think they were the better team because tactically they did what they were supposed to do and it worked for them.”

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The Fire defeated the Galaxy in four of six games this season, so it has definitely earned the conference championship. But even Coach Bob Bradley felt bad for the Galaxy, whose wide-open play and attacking style resulted in numerous league records during the year.

“I have tremendous resect for the Galaxy,” he said. “Sure, I feel for them. It’s even more difficult when the win comes like tonight, in a shootout. There’s no two ways about it.”

Galaxy Coach Octavio Zambrano was more to the point. “There’s no science to the shootout,” he said.

Especially when you don’t have a proper field to practice it on.

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Perhaps next season will be different.


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