Win and you're in.
That was the scenario facing the Los Angeles Galaxy entering Sunday afternoon’s last regular-season game and a playoff berth seemed all but inevitable when the team took a 2-0 halftime lead, but the Houston Dynamo rallied for three goals to stun the Galaxy and a sellout crowd at StubHub Center in Carson.
The 3-2 loss was all the more shocking given that the Galaxy had not lost at home since May while Houston had gone 2-2-10 in its previous 14 games and had won only once on the road all season.
Star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic promised that the Galaxy would be "fired up” and sure enough they applied pressure from the opening kickoff, earning six corner kicks in the first 27 minutes and scoring off the last when Ola Kamara headed a cross from Romain Alessandrini. Kamara struck again three minutes later, one-timing a feed from Ashley Cole beneath the crossbar for his 14th goal of the season.
"We were a little complacent in the second half,” interim coach Dominic Kinnear said. “A third goal puts the game out of reach and I would’ve loved to have seen the same energy and ball possession we had in the first half. I knew it wasn’t over because they have players who can score. I wish I could’ve called a timeout, but you can’t do that in this game.”
Romell Quioto scored from left of the post to begin Houston’s comeback in the 58th minute and the visitors drew even on a penalty kick by Mauro Manotas in the 73rd minute after A.J. DeLaGarza was fouled in the box.
Manotas scored again from five yards out off a pass from Alberth Elis in the 78th minute and suddenly the Galaxy were behind. Manotas found the upper left corner on a left-footed blast three minutes later, but he was ruled offside.
Nine minutes of stoppage time were added at the end and Los Angeles misfired on several quality chances despite Houston’s delaying tactics, which led to several yellow cards and a red card to Ronaldo Pena.
The crowd erupted when Dave Romney hooked a header by Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis moments before the final whistle, but the equalizing tally was nullified on an offside infraction. Even had it counted, it would not have been enough to prevent the Galaxy from missing the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in a decade and the third time in franchise history. Sunday’s loss marked the 30th defeat in the last two seasons — the team’s most ever over a two-year span.
A draw would have pulled the Galaxy even with Real Salt Lake, which ended the season last week with 49 points, but the first tiebreaker in Major League Soccer is wins and Los Angeles had one fewer. Had the Galaxy won they would have leapfrogged Real Salt Lake for the sixth and last spot in the Western Conference playoffs and earned a match against crosstown rival LAFC.
“I feel empty right now,” Kinnear said. “We had great chances at the end and the guys gave it everything they had, we just came up short. Finding out LAFC finished third it made this even more hurtful.”
Making the playoffs seemed bleak after a 5-3 road defeat to Toronto FC on Sept. 15, but Los Angeles went unbeaten in four games (three wins and a draw) to pull to within one point of a qualifying position with one game remaining. The team had been hemorrhaging goals under former coach Sigi Schmid, but Kinnear dumped Schmid’s 3-5-2 formation in favor of a more common 4-4-2 and Los Angeles entered Sunday’s finale having allowed only two goals in its last four games.
Ibrahimovic, who finished the season with a team-high 22 goals and 10 assists and created several scoring chances Sunday, played a role in seven of the Galaxy's 10 goals during their four-game unbeaten streak. The Galaxy ended up 9-2-4 in games in which he scored and 4-10-5 when he didn't.
Los Angeles has had three coaches in the last 23 months and none of them has finished a full season. Despite reviving the team’s playoff hopes, Kinnear acknowledged he is uncertain about his future. Former Galaxy player Gregg Berhalter, now the coach at Columbus, is the favorite for the job but is also being pursued by the U.S. national team. Also receiving consideration is former Portland Timbers manager Caleb Porter, a college roommate of LA Galaxy President Chris Klein.