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Absolutely No Place Like Home for Galaxy

Times Staff Writer

He nearly shed a tear.

And it wasn’t because he realized the magnitude of the promise he had made minutes earlier.

Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid was sitting on the open-air concourse outside of the stadium club restaurant, surveying the flawless field below while workers put the finishing touches on the sparkling new Home Depot Center, at once the Galaxy’s new 27,000-seat, soccer-specific home and the Taj Mahal of American soccer.

“This is very emotional,” Schmid said as he tilted his head. “It means more than words describe. Anyone who grew up in Southern California soccer understands.

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“You look at this and you almost want to cry because you never believed this was possible.”

And while these would be tears of joy, you couldn’t blame Schmid or the Galaxy if they first shed tears of frustration.

Because of the stadium’s construction, the defending Major League Soccer champion Galaxy had to play its first eight league games on the road. And the results were not pretty.

The Galaxy (0-4-4) limps into today’s Home Depot Center-opening match against the Colorado Rapids tied with Colorado and D.C. United with four points in the standings, worst in the league.

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“It was a greater ordeal than any of us expected,” Schmid said of playing eight consecutive road games.

Midfielder Cobi Jones agreed. “No one could have imagined [the results],” he said. “But this is where we are and we have to deal with it.”

The Galaxy also has had to deal with the bull’s-eye on its back that came with winning the MLS Cup last fall. Injuries and a combustible chemistry have also taken their toll.

Which made it an odd time for Schmid to make like Joe Namath.

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Although he wasn’t holding court with reporters while lounging shirtless poolside before a Super Bowl, Schmid did take a page from the former New York Jet quarterback’s playbook of mind games when he guaranteed a victory today to a gathering of fans during an early-week luncheon.

“It’s easier to guarantee [a win] when you’re 0-4-4 than when you’re 8-0-1,” Schmid said with a smile.

It’s also easier when you’re at home, opening the crown jewel of the 125-acre, $150-million sports complex on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson.

All of which prompted Schmid to admit that he would again make that eight-game road-start deal with the devil, or in this case, Anschutz Entertainment Group, so long as the payoff was still the new stadium.

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Colorado Coach Tim Hankinson told the Denver Post, “They’re desperate to win and they’re desperate to win in their new home stadium. The key is clearly going to be the opening 20 or 30 minutes, when L.A. comes flying down the park.”

Schmid agreed.

“We need to play faster but also play better,” he said. “The way you dictate tempo is by how you play defense.”

But the Galaxy is still not completely sound.

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A major cog of the team’s attack, defensive midfielder Peter Vagenas, has been hampered all season by an abdominal strain and last played April 26, five games ago.

In his absence, the Galaxy midfield has been trying to find itself and an identity, playing slow and deliberately one game, then quickly but out of control the next, resulting in fewer scoring chances for the team’s forwards.

Consider: Carlos Ruiz, last year’s league most valuable player with an MLS-leading 24 goals, has only three this year. He had to sit out last week’s loss at previously winless Colorado because of the red card he’d received after reacting to a knee to the back of his head the previous game.

Also, Schmid has had a hard time fitting high-profile South Korean signee Hong Myung Bo into the Galaxy’s defensive scheme along with Alexi Lalas, who has experienced a career renaissance under Schmid.

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“Bo is a great player and Alexi has played well for the Galaxy,” Schmid said. “They both play the same position [defender-sweeper], unfortunately. It’s a little like having two great goalkeepers.”

Subtraction by addition?

As far as the Galaxy is concerned, the addition of the country’s ultimate soccer venue can only help. Especially because it now has a home base with its own locker room and does not have to worry about clearing out its Rose Bowl digs whenever UCLA has a football game. Or having to tote its gear to practice on a baseball field outside the Rose Bowl or to USC or Claremont-Mudd or Loyola Marymount.

“It’s great and refreshing,” Jones said. “It’s such a professional atmosphere here now and it’s not going to change year to year.”

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Midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos, with Jones one of two original Galaxy players remaining since the league’s inception in 1996 and the team’s playmaker, is in his final season. He was breathless as he looked at the shimmering emerald green pitch.

“Que lindo, verdad?” he whispered. “How pretty, right? This is such a different feeling -- security.”

How different?

An embarrassed Alex Pineda Chacon, apparently in awe of his new surroundings, walked forehead-first into a clear glass door at the stadium club restaurant.

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Getting a victory today at a sold-out stadium would shake the cobwebs as well.

“We need to get that first one,” Schmid said. “Pop the cork here on our maiden voyage.”

And make good on a guarantee.


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