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Giovani dos Santos’ goal lifts Galaxy over Rapids in first game of Western Conference semifinal

Galaxy forward Giovani dos Santos celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Rapids.
Galaxy forward Giovani dos Santos celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Rapids.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Landon Donovan has been with the Galaxy just seven weeks, so his point of reference may be a bit skewed. But the team, he said Sunday, may finally have found the personality it’s been looking for all season.

“We have a way we play now. It’s just a mentality,” he said after the Galaxy’s 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in the opener of a two-game Western Conference semifinal at StubHub Center.

“We didn’t sign any new defenders. Nobody changed the way they defend. Our mentality has changed and everybody knows that if they do little things to help out, it adds up.”

That math worked out Sunday, when the Galaxy dominated time of possession, gave up just one shot on goal and turned a lucky bounce into the game’s only score, with Giovani dos Santos’ second-half header ricocheting off a Colorado defender into the net.

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As a result the Galaxy will take a one-goal lead to suburban Denver for next Sunday’s second leg of the playoff, which will be decided on aggregate goals. And by shutting out Colorado, the Galaxy increased their odds of advancing since road scores serve as the first tiebreaker.

“Everyone knows what the score is so you can’t hide that fact,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “Typically, you never play the same game [in Colorado] as you do at home because of the environmental conditions. So it will be somewhat different.”

The altitude may be the only thing that changes, however, because after experimenting with lineups and combinations all season, Arena appears to have finally one that works.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be for the Galaxy, of course. They were built to bludgeon opponents behind an attack led by designated players Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard. But neither has started in nearly a month so the Galaxy have adopted a new, gritty blue-collar persona, one that has resulted in a four-game unbeaten streak in which they’ve allowed just one goal, that coming on a penalty kick.

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It’s just the second time this season the Galaxy has allowed one goal over a four-game period.

“It’s playoff soccer,” forward Alan Gordon said. “So you’ve got to work both sides” of the ball.

Added defender Jelle Van Damme: “I don’t think you have to change much. You have to keep playing like you have the last games. We’re defending well as a team, attacking well as a team.”

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Van Damme did both Sunday, making a team-high three tackles, clearing a Colorado chance and setting up the game’s only score by collecting the rebound of his own shot, dribbling through the legs of Rapids’ defender Michael Azira, then lining a low left-footed cross to Dos Santos at the penalty spot.

Dos Santos ducked his head at the ball, sending a soft one-hop shot toward the goal. But when Colorado defender Axel Sjoberg stepped in front to try to clear it, he mistakenly headed it away from keeper Tim Howard and into the side netting at the far post.

“In these types of playoffs, the openers are important,” Dos Santos said in Spanish. “These are games with a different flavor and a different feeling.

“The pressure is different because it’s kill or be killed.”

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And now that deadly pressure shifts to Colorado, which is down a goal but going home, where it hasn’t lost all year.

“We have one game left in our season, right?” defender Jared Watts asked. “So that’s all we can play for.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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