Hernandez Is Just in Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Galaxy is one point away from Major League Soccer's championship game. A tie against the Fire in Chicago on Wednesday night is all it will take to get to the Oct. 21 title match at Columbus, Ohio.

And if Luis Hernandez is late getting there, Coach Sigi Schmid won't mind one bit.

The Mexican striker did not start Game 2 of the MLS semifinal series at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday night because he claimed to have been tied up in traffic coming from his home in Pasadena.

But Hernandez was sent into the game in the 62nd minute and, four minutes into sudden-death overtime, he created the goal that earned the Galaxy a 1-0 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 10,100 at Titan Stadium and a four-points-to-one lead in the three-game series, with five points the magic number.

Chicago had created most of the scoring chances in a hard-fought game, but the Galaxy came away with the three points.

In overtime, Hernandez stole the ball off defender David Vaudreuil and hammered a shot that Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton did well to block.

Unfortunately for Thornton, the ball rebounded straight to Hernandez and, instead of taking a second shot, he sent a square pass across the open net to Peter Vagenas.

Vagenas was so astonished that he almost botched his shot, but managed to steer the ball inside the right post before being mobbed by teammates.

"I was completely surprised [by the pass]," Vagenas said. "He's a true goal scorer and when goal scorers get in that position they have one thing in mind and that's scoring a goal. He could easily have shot the ball and no one would have said anything.

"I thought he was going to shoot it, but I think he saw me out of the corner of his eye and played me the ball. I miss-hit it so bad. I've never mis-hit a ball like that in my life." But it went in and suddenly the Galaxy was within reach of the championship game.

"It was a terrible ending," said Fire Coach Bob Bradley, whose team dominated large portions of the game, but was unable to score against a Galaxy team that raised the level of its play since the disappointing 1-1 tie in Game 1 at Chicago on Wednesday.

"We didn't take advantage of some of the good chances we created and obviously made a [defensive] mistake and paid for it," Bradley said.

Vaudreuil said he had been trying to control a pass that went behind him, but before he could do so, Hernandez was on him and had stolen the ball.

Chicago now faces a must-win situation Wednesday night at Soldier Field to force a 20-minute series tiebreaker, which also is sudden-death. Worse yet, for Bradley, he will have to do without playmaker Peter Nowak, who strained his right hamstring and played only the first 45 minutes Saturday.

"He tweaked it right before the half, so we'll have to see [if he is able to play]," Bradley said. Nowak said he doubted he would be able to start.

The Galaxy, which was beaten in the semifinal series tiebreaker last season by eventual champion Kansas City Wizards, is likely to be in a tight game again Wednesday night. Schmid had predicted before the series began that there would never be more than a goal between the teams and so far he has been proven correct.

"None of these games are going to be blowouts," he said. Schmid praised Cobi Jones' role in the goal even thought Jones did not even touch the ball.

"Cobi made a great run," he said. "Luis was able to use Cobi's run because it dragged away a couple of defenders. Luis hit a good shot that Thornton couldn't hold. A lot of guys would have probably put the next shot on goal again, but [Hernandez] was smart enough to know there were people at the back post and he just slid it [the ball] across for Peter to almost miss-hit it." The Galaxy will leave for Chicago on Monday knowing that it has not won anything yet.

"We've now forced a situation where they've got to beat us," Schmid said. "We have to be smart about it and use the opportunities that fall our way. We know they've got to come at us, they've got to press the issue, so that should open up some space for us to counter-attack."

And perhaps Hernandez can lose his way between the hotel and Soldier Field and arrive late again.

"If he sets up the winning goal, he can be late all the time," Schmid said.

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