The Galaxy was reeling, but with a single swing of his right leg Saturday afternoon Mauricio Cienfuegos put things right, knocking out one team and--figuratively speaking--two people.
The first to feel the impact was Mark Chung, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars' midfielder whose forehead got in the way of Cienfuegos' free kick eight minutes into the sudden-death tiebreaker used to settle Major League Soccer's quarterfinal playoff series.
The deflection caused the ball to loop over goalkeeper Tim Howard and, just like that, it was all over. The Galaxy, which won Game 3, 3-2, to force the tiebreaker, was in the MLS semifinals--where it will play the Chicago Fire--and the MetroStars' season was over.
On the Rose Bowl sideline, Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid collapsed in a heap, lying on his back in disbelief, emotionally exhausted. He blamed goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel, not Cienfuegos.
"When Zak jumped on there [onto the celebratory pile of Galaxy players and coaches], it was too much for me to hold," Schmid said.
In the end, the Galaxy proved too much for the MetroStars to hold. The MetroStars had managed to tie Game 1, 1-1, at the Rose Bowl lastSunday and had overwhelmed the Galaxy, 4-1, in Game 2 at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands on Wednesday.
They needed only to tie Game 3 to advance, but narrowly failed to land the knockout punch. All the same, it was a close call. In boxing terms, the Galaxy won Game 3 by a decision in front of an announced crowd of 6,154.
"That's what the playoffs are all about," Galaxy midfielder Simon Elliott said. "The good thing about this team, it's a bit of a cliche, but we keep going. We got hammered in the second half on Wednesday night and we just picked ourselves up and said, 'Right, we're going again."'
Sasha Victorine scored twice in the first half to put the Galaxy in charge.
The first goal came when Elliott floated a long downfield pass toward the MetroStars' net, and Victorine headed the ball sharply back across the grain to beat goalkeeper Howard, who might have been distracted by a defender running across his path.
That was in the 21st minute. Twelve minute later, Cobi Jones perfectly timed a through pass to Victorine, who lured Howard out of the net before hitting a left-foot shot past him and in at the far post.
The MetroStars cut the deficit to a single goal four minutes into the second half when Rodrigo Faria sent a pass across the Galaxy goalmouth and Petter Villegas blasted it past goalkeeper Kevin Hartman.
Hartman made a good save off Faria a short while later and the Galaxy then extended its lead to 3-1 when Adam Frye beat Howard with a diving header from close range.
Jones had sent a corner kick in from the right, Alexi Lalas headed it back across the net and Frye threw himself at the ball and scored.
With the Galaxy defense looking exhausted in the 85-degree heat, Chung sent the ball out to Villegas on the right and he slammed it past Hartman for his second goal of the game.
Trailing, 3-2, and knowing that a tie was all they needed, the MetroStars continued to attack. Their cause was helped in the 71st minute when Danny Califf became the third Galaxy defender in as many games to be ejected.
Referee Paul Tamberino showed him the red card after Califf had brought down Faria. The Galaxy played a man down the rest of the way.
Four minutes later, the MetroStars came within inches of getting the tying goal. Chung took a hard shot but, fortunately for the Galaxy, Elliott was on the goal line and headed the ball clear.
"Even when we were down to 10 men, we kept our composure," Elliott said. "We learned from our mistakes of last time."
The final whistle sounded, leaving the series tied at 1-1-1.
It would need the 20-minute, sudden-death tiebreaker to determine which team advanced.
Exactly 6:59 into the tiebreaker, Daniel Hernandez fouled Jones and the Galaxy was awarded a free kick 19 yards out.
Cienfuegos stepped up to take it and hit a hard, curving shot that was already on target when it struck Chung, the last man in the MetroStars' defensive wall.
"That's Cien's bread and butter, he's very good at doing that [scoring on free kicks from that range]," Elliott said. "If he feels like he can hit it, then he's going to hit it because he's deadly from around the edge of the box."
MetroStar (and former Galaxy) Coach Octavio Zambrano had effusive praise for Cienfuegos.
"These are the kinds of games where a big-time player needs to show up," he said. "They had one in Mauricio and he made a difference.
"He scored the winning goal. It doesn't matter what you do or don't do [in a game], if you are able to do just that you're worth a lot. This is when you expect the money guys to be there, and he was there. This is the type of goal that's worth your whole salary and double. He should be looking for a raise."
Zambrano was philosophical about the outcome.
"We made it interesting," he said. "We were clearly not the favorite, but I thought at times we had a chance. I don't think we did anything wrong, it was just the way the ball bounces. It wasn't meant to be."
The Galaxy players were too exhausted to celebrate much of anything.
"This team has shown a lot of heart in adversity through the whole year," Victorine said.
Semifinals; Best-of-three format
Game 1--Oct. 10 at Chicago, 5:30 p.m. PDT
Game 2--Oct. 13 at Galaxy, 7 p.m.
Game 3--Oct. 17 at Chicago, 5:30 p.m. PDT