The Galaxy opened the Guillermo Barros Schelotto Era on Saturday. And for the most part it didn’t look a whole lot different than the season that preceded it.
With the Argentine coach on the sidelines for his first game as manager, the Galaxy, again riddled by injuries, fell behind on a defensive error, then rallied behind a magical goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic to beat the Chicago Fire 2-1 before an announced crowd of 25,866 at Dignity Health Sports Park.
There was one new twist though and that came from Efrain Alvarez, the 16-year-old East Los Angeles prodigy who set up both Galaxy goals in an auspicious MLS debut.
“He’s full of confidence. When you have the fans cheering for you like they do in his case, you get extra motivated,” said Ibrahimovic, who had already played in a World Cup before Alvarez, the youngest-ever Galaxy player to appear in an MLS game, had been born. “But he’s only 16 years old. Don’t forget his age.”
The rainy afternoon opened with pomp given the opening-day circumstances. More than an hour before kickoff the Galaxy unveiled a statue of David Beckham, whose signing with the Galaxy in 2007 had a transformative impact on the league and the club.
The team also observed a “moment of celebration” for former Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid, who died of heart trouble on Christmas Day, wore black armbands in his memory, then inducted Beckham into its Ring of Honor at halftime.
Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, the team’s pint-sized good-luck charm, sang the national anthem.
And the Galaxy needed all the help they could get.
Schelotto’s team started the game short-handed after losing both dangerous forward Ola Kamara, to Shenzhen of the Chinese SuperLeague, and designated player Gio dos Santos, to a club buyout, in the final three days of the preseason. Three others — midfielders Sebastian Lletget, Perry Kitchen and Juninho — were missing with injuries.
That forced 22-year-old rookie Emil Cuello into the center of Schelotto’s attack-minded 4-2-3-1 formation underneath Ibrahimovic. And the midfield got even smaller in the 19th minute when Romain Alessandrini, the Galaxy’s most dangerous player in the early going, limped to the locker room with a right hamstring strain.
But the black clouds hanging over the Galaxy cleared — literally and figuratively — midway through the second half when Schelotto, who spent most of the night standing alone, arms folded, on the edge of the technical area, waved Alvarez off the bench into the game for the unimpressive Cuello.
And he came on with the Galaxy trailing.
After a first half in which the Fire outshot, out-possessed and generally outplayed the Galaxy, the visitors needed just three minutes of the second half to outscore them, with Chicago’s C.J. Sapong running on to a poor back pass from defender Diego Polenta, rounding keeper David Bingham and then pushing the ball into an open net.
That was one of the few mistakes the Galaxy defense made though and center back Daniel Steres made up for it 20 minutes later, tying the game on a header. It was a score set up by Alvarez who, eight minutes after coming on, gathered a loose ball on the right edge of the penalty area, deked his way around Chicago’s Aleksandar Katai and dribbled toward the end line before looping a left-footed cross into the center of the box for Steres.
That set the stage for Ibrahimovic, who had a conference-best seven game-winning goals last season. He was frustrated most of the night, including on his first attempt to put the Galaxy ahead in the 71st minute when Chicago keeper David Ousted made a spectacular save, reaching back with his left hand to flick an Ibrahimovic header over the crossbar.
But the Galaxy captain didn’t miss on his next attempt nine minutes later.
And again Alvarez helped make it happen, holding back Chicago defender Bastian Schweinsteiger to flip a pass into the path of Chris Pontius, whose left-footed shot ricocheted off the crossbar. The rebound took one big hop and Ibrahimovic, charging in on the left side, dipped his head to knock it in at the near post, making Schelotto the first Galaxy coach to win in his debut since Schmid in 1999.
“To be honest, it is a great feeling to have won and slowly begin to build confidence,” he said. “That is very good.”
So, it turns out, is Efrain Alvarez.