Even as the players lined up at midfield, strolling forward one at a time during a penalty kick shootout Tuesday night, the absences stuck out. No Zlatan Ibrahimovic. No Jonathan dos Santos. No near-capacity crowd.
Up until the PKs, the only atmosphere inside Dignity Health Sports Park came from the clashing chants between the Galaxy’s diminished supporter section and the red-clad clump of visiting fans surrounding them.
As feared, the inaugural Leagues Cup — an eight-team knockout tournament between MLS and Liga MX clubs — struggled to engender the energy of an international cup competition.
Only the dramatic finish, a 3-1 Galaxy penalty-kick win over Mexican side Club Tijuana after a 2-2 draw in regulation, provided a late pulse to the quarterfinal match.
“The team fought,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said, praising his team’s resolve even as it played without its biggest stars. “Not like they were young. Like men.”
Successful Galaxy PKs from Servando Carrasco, who grew up in Tijuana scrimmaging with Xolos as a kid, and Emmanuel Boateng, plus three saves from Galaxy goalkeeper Matt Lampson gave captain Giancarlo Gonzalez the chance to win the shootout in the fifth round.
Before putting the ball on the spot, Gonzalez shook hands with Tijuana keeper Gibran Lajud. Then he blasted the winning tally into the upper right corner, bringing to life the Galaxy half of a sparse crowd split almost equally. The Galaxy will face Cruz Azul in the semifinals on Aug. 20.
“In the Open Cup, we had a similar lineup in Portland and didn’t put in a performance and didn’t work as hard,” Boateng said. “We made sure today to come in and leave everything out there on the field, especially in the second half.”
The attendance was 10,421 far below the Galaxy’s average league attendance of nearly 23,000, and the team sealed off the unsold upper deck. The lower level was littered with empty seats that seared the background of ESPN’s broadcast. On the concourses, some concession stands were shuttered. Aside from goals, a controversial homophobic Mexican chant that accompanied Galaxy goalkicks constituted the loudest cheers.
The Galaxy’s lineup also reflected the apathy toward the Leagues Cup, which has been widely criticized since being announced in May. As he warned Monday, Schelotto fielded a second-choice lineup. Ibrahimovic, MLS’ second-leading goal scorer, and Dos Santos were two of nine changes from last week’s lineup.
Conversely, Tijuana stuck with the same starting 11 from its most recent league match, its first of the Liga MX season, and dominated in shots, 20-7, and possession, 64%. But it couldn’t hold on to a 2-1 halftime lead.
Galaxy goals from Boateng in the 27th minute and Dave Romney in the 54th minute bookended first-half strikes from Tijuana’s Ariel Nahuelpan and Washington Camacho. Tijuana squandered chances to win in normal time, including a 90th-minute free kick from Ignacio Rivero after the Galaxy’s Julian Araujo was sent off for a second yellow card.
“For a lot of these young guys, that’s a huge game for them for the rest of their career. To be a part of it is really special,” Lampson said. “And MLS and Liga MX, we want to be on par with them as much as we can.”