The Galaxy got another chance Saturday to show how good they can be without their talisman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The answer? Much better than anyone, including their coach, expected.
With Ibrahimovic sitting out a second consecutive match with a strained Achilles, the Galaxy were ambitious, aggressive and relentless in his absence, riding first-half goals from Jonathan dos Santos and Chris Pontius and a late second-half score from Sebastian Lletget to a 3-2 victory over Minnesota United before an announced 21,177 at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Minnesota, which never led, got scores from Jan Gregus in the 75th minute and from Angelo Rodriguez a dozen minutes later.
The difference between this game and last game came on the training field, Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said.
“During this week, everyone paid attention in every training [session]. Every word I said to them,” he said. “You have every player paying attention and trying to understand what you want to do. They gave me 100% every training. And today. Today was really good.”
Schelotto’s tactical changes involved moving Pontius, Ibrahimovic’s replacement at striker last week, back into the midfield and pushing the speedy Uriel Antuna up front. And it worked with Pontius scoring one goal and Antuna, who gave Minnesota fits all night, assisting on what proved to be the game-winner.
As a result, the Galaxy got off 20 shots, held the ball more than 60% of the time and completed nearly 90% of their passes.
The Galaxy (2-1-0) were quick and creative from the start, nearly stealing a goal in the second minute when Dos Santos — wearing the captain’s armband in Ibrahimovic’s absence — sent a long cross into the box for Pontius. But his header from the penalty spot one-hopped died into the arms of Minnesota goalkeeper Vito Mannone.
Still, that counted as progress since it took the Galaxy more than 90 minutes to get their only shot on goal in their first game without Ibrahimovic, a 2-0 loss in Dallas last weekend.
The Galaxy seemed to be playing with eight attackers, rushing the Minnesota goal in waves.
The Galaxy, who looked to be wilting under the intense early pace, finally got a break in the 34th minute when Minnesota midfielder Osvaldo Alonso crashed into Antuna in the center of the box. After a long video review, referee Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot and Dos Santos calmly slotted the penalty kick home.
That appeared to give the Galaxy their second wind, and Pontius doubled the lead seven minutes later, chesting home a cross from a wide-open Rolf Feltscher on the right wing. The goal was Pontius’ first since July.
Gregus pulled one of those back in the 75th minute with a shot from outside the box that appeared to go through Galaxy keeper David Bingham.
Lletget restored the two-goal lead in the 81st minute, sticking his right boot up to deflect in an Antuna cross from the end line. For Lletget, who started the game wearing a plastic mask to protect a broken nose, the goal was his first since August. The assist was Antuna’s first in MLS.
Rodriguez, a second-half substitute, gave Minnesota (2-1-0) hope in 87th minute, banging home the rebound of an Abu Danladi shot. But the Loons, who played Saturday without coach Adrian Heath — who has been away from the team for a week after contracting an infection following dental surgery — could get no closer.
When it was over, Schelotto said the performance was his team’s best of the season. But he also said he’d just as soon have Ibrahimovic back for the team’s next game March 31.
“When you don’t have players like Ibra, you can feel it,” he said. “If you tell me I have to make [a choice], I choose to play always with a player like Ibra.”