Eight minutes into sudden-death overtime Wednesday and with a place in Major League Soccer's championship game on the line, Mauricio Cienfuegos glanced up.
Seeing goalkeeper Zach Thornton standing out of position, the Galaxy playmaker let fly with a shot from more than 30 yards. The ball seemed to take forever to reach its target and during its improbable flight, the Chicago Fire's entire season must have flashed before its collective eyes--and for good reason.
It was the Salvadoran midfielder whose free kick had ended the New York/New Jersey MetroStars' season in the playoff quarterfinals and now he was about to end the Fire's hopes of a second MLS championship by beating it in the semifinals.
Caught by surprise, Thornton could only watch in disbelief as the ball struck the inside of the right post and rebounded into the net behind him, giving the Galaxy a 2-1 victory and a spot in the final for the third time in six seasons.
On Sunday, Los Angeles will play the San Jose Earthquakes in the league's first all-California championship match. The Earthquakes got there by defeating the Miami Fusion, 1-0, on Wednesday night. Cienfuegos said he had noticed Thornton standing well off his goal line when the overtime started.
"I saw him and I thought that if I got the ball I would take a chance [on a long-range shot]," Cienfuegos said, adding that Thornton had lost track of the ball and "didn't know where it was."
The Galaxy tied the Fire, 1-1, in Chicago in Game 1 last week when Luis Hernandez scored and had beaten Fire, 1-0, in Game 2 at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday thanks to Peter Vagenas' goal four minutes into overtime.
All Los Angeles needed to clinch the series was a tie Wednesday, but it was the Fire that struck first, to the delight of the 13,444 at Soldier Field.
In the 30th minute, midfielder Chris Armas sent a cross-field pass from the right flank to a streaking DaMarcus Beasley on the left and the teenager sprinted into the penalty area before unleashing a rising shot that flew past Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman.
The Fire was unable to build on the advantage, however, and the Galaxy was back even within 14 minutes.
In the closing moments of the first half, Cobi Jones sent a cross in from the right wing to Sasha Victorine at the far post. Victorine headed the ball back across the goalmouth and Galaxy defender Danny Califf was well positioned to slam it into the roof of the Chicago net.
It was Califf's miscue against the Kansas City Wizards that caused the Galaxy to be knocked out of the playoffs in Game 3 of the MLS semifinals last season, but he said he had been able to ignore that unpleasant memory.
"It's always in the back of your mind," he said. "But you've got to move on. I think I put some skeletons back in the closet." Or at least some ghosts to rest.
Califf was only one reason the Galaxy won. He was inspirational at both ends of the field, but there wasn't a Galaxy player who failed to contribute Wednesday, a fact that Coach Sigi Schmid was quick to point out.
"The old [rap] on the Galaxy was that it's a team that plays pretty soccer but doesn't have a lot of heart and doesn't have a lot of fortitude," Schmid said. "I don't think you can say that about the Galaxy anymore. Maybe at times this year the soccer hasn't been to our liking, or even up to our standard, but for sure the character of this team has been unbelievable." Jones, who along with Cienfuegos and defender Greg Vanney, are the only three survivors of the original Galaxy team, made the same observation.
The Galaxy lost the 1996 and 1999 finals to Washington D.C. United, but Jones said he does not want to see it happen again.
"We've battled all the way through, we showed some character, now we've got to finish it off," he said. "It's time to win it."
The Galaxy already has won the CONCACAF Championship this year, a feat it achieved in January, and on Oct. 27 it plays the New England Revolution in the final of the U.S. Open Cup.
Now it has the chance to win three titles in one season.
"We've told our team that they have an opportunity to do something great this year," Schmid said. "That they have the opportunity to have the best season in L.A. Galaxy history and to do something where they're going to be remembered for a long, long time. We're one step closer to that."