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Galaxy squanders it away

Times Staff Writer

As anniversaries go, Sunday’s was a bust.

Twelve years to the day from the Galaxy’s Major League Soccer debut -- a day when Cobi Jones sent a Rose Bowl crowd of 69,255 into a frenzy with the team’s first goal on April 13, 1996 -- the Galaxy turned in a strange performance.

Yes, Landon Donovan scored twice. Yes, David Beckham was his usual influential self. Yes, the team could have come away with at least a point.

But, no, the Galaxy did not win, or even tie. It was beaten, 3-2, by Toronto FC, a second-year team still being pieced together and finding its feet in the league.

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Galaxy Coach Ruud Gullit was staggered by the way his players failed to take advantage of numerous clear scoring chances -- Donovan missed a sitter when he drove the ball into the side netting. Ely Allen made an even more glaring error, allowing the ball to be stripped from his toe with the goal at his mercy.

There were several other lapses, and in the end the squandered opportunities decided the outcome. As Gullit said, the Galaxy suffered “the consequences of not being able to bury this game early.”

With each Galaxy miscue, Toronto (1-2-0) grew in strength and confidence, despite the heat. The result was almost inevitable, and it came when substitute Jeff Cunningham latched onto a pass in the 88th minute and beat Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin to earn the Canadian team its first points of the season.

“It was near the end of the game, it was our last opportunity, I wanted to make the most of it,” said Cunningham, the league’s fourth-leading goal scorer of all time.

Cunningham could have played an even more dramatic role a little earlier in the match when he broke through and appeared set to score, only to be taken down by Beckham on the edge of the penalty area.

To everyone’s astonishment, including Beckham’s and Gullit’s, referee Alex Prus waved play on.

“I don’t know, maybe it was a foul, maybe it wasn’t,” Beckham said. “Sometimes they give ‘em, sometimes they don’t. Thankfully, we got away with that one.”

Had Prus interpreted the law to the letter, Beckham could have been red-carded for the first time in his Major League Soccer career.

“It was definitely a foul, but I think it would have been quite harsh to give him a red card, to be quite honest,” Cunningham said generously.

“I think we were lucky there,” Gullit admitted. “It was the only luck we had the whole game.”

It was only the seventh victory in Toronto FC history, the team having compiled a 6-17-7 record in 2007. It came into Sunday’s game at the Home Depot Center 0-2-0 after losses at Columbus and D.C. United.

Danny Dichio gave Toronto the lead three minutes before halftime, taking full advantage of a pass from newly signed Honduran international Amado Guevara.

Donovan tied it up exactly 60 seconds later, however, driving the ball home after receiving a pass from Chris Klein, and the teams went into the locker room all square.

The second half saw Jarrod Smith restore Toronto’s lead in the 53rd minute, only for Donovan to bang in a penalty kick five minutes later after Toronto defender Marco Velez handled a free kick sent in by Beckham.

Velez later made up for his hand ball error by sprinting in at the last second and clearing the ball off Allen’s foot when all Allen had to do was poke it into the net. Having lost the chance to take the lead, the Galaxy (1-2-0) then gave away the game by allowing Cunningham to grab the winner.

Gullit was more astounded than angry, at least in public.

“We should have buried this game already in the first half,” he said. “The chances we had, it was incredible. They had three possibilities and they scored three.

“The goals that we gave away were incredibly sloppy,” he added, without singling out any defender in particular for blame, although Greg Vanney was twice victimized.

“Sometimes it’s cruel,” Gullit said. “You have to accept it.”

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grahame.jones@latimes.com


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