No team ever wants to lose a game. But there are some games teams are less eager to win.
For the Galaxy, Tuesday’s 2-1 Leagues Cup loss to Mexico’s Cruz Azul may have been one of those.
The semifinal of the first-year tournament came three days after a crucial MLS game with Seattle Sounders and five days before the cross-town rivalry game with LAFC. And if the Galaxy had won, they would have advanced to next month’s tournament final in Las Vegas, which not only would have meant a road trip but it also would have cluttered a schedule that already has the team playing three league games in 10 days.
So Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto rested his regulars and used a lineup of reserves: Just three players who started Tuesday have also started at least half of the team’s regular-season games this year. Two others haven’t played in any MLS matches this season.
“The most important thing we have this year, when we were talking with the coaches, is the playoffs for MLS,” Schelotto said.
The eight-team Leagues Cup, on the other hand, wasn’t announced until the last week of May. So even with a roster as deep as the Galaxy’s, that made it tough to put a team together.
“I know it’s important, the game. I know it’s important to compete with a team from Mexico,” Schelotto said. “Maybe in the future, when you organize the whole year, you can organize better if you know you are going to play [in this tournament].”
For some players, however, the Leagues Cup filled a need. Defender Dave Romney has appeared in just six MLS games this season, his lowest total in four years. But he’s started both Leagues Cup matches.
“The guys that we went with, this is their game,” he said. “This is our chance to prove ourselves.”
Cruz Azul, five weeks into the Liga MX’s Apertura, had no such dilemma, starting its regular lineup, one that included goalkeeper Jesus Corona and three others who have been called up to the Mexican national team within the last year. And the Mexicans, playing before a friendly crowd of 20,135, quickly made themselves at home.
The game was less than three minutes old before the first anti-gay goal-kick chant was heard. There would be several more to follow.
And the game was less than four minutes old before Cruz Azul had its first goal, with Jose Maduena bouncing a left-footed strike from the top of the penalty area off the right post.
The Galaxy nearly got an equalizer in the 33rd minute when Daniel Steres ran onto a long, bending free kick from Efrain Alvarez inside the six-yard box. But Corona was perfectly positioned to gobble up his right-footed deflection.
He wasn’t as lucky on the next shot four minutes later, with Emil Cuello skipping a one-hop shot by the goalkeeper from about 30 yards out.
The tie lasted just two minutes past the intermission, though, with Orbelin Pineda putting Cruz Azul head to stay, bending a right-footed shot inside the right post from about 25 yards. Pineda celebrated the score with a series of somersaults and a short dance routine.
Cruz Azul put just one other shot on Galaxy keeper Matt Lampson.
“I don’t think they created too much outside of two long shots outside the box,” Romney said. “Lampson couldn’t do anything about those.”
The Galaxy nearly evened the score off an Alvarez corner kick in the final seconds of regulation. But Corona, surprised by the shot as much as anything else, grabbed Chris Pontius’ header out of the air on the goal line for his second save of the night, keeping the game from going to penalty kicks.
The Leagues Cup was inaugurated this summer to provide another opportunity -- after the Campeones Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League -- for MLS teams to test themselves against teams from Mexico’s Liga MX. And Schelotto, who played in MLS a decade ago, said the U.S. league is now holding its own.
“I’m very proud of the players because we competed with one of the best teams in Mexico. We deserved a little more,” he said.
Then, switching to Spanish, he added: “It’s very even. There’s not a lot of difference. MLS is growing a lot. It’s very close to the Liga MX.”
However, the final of the eight-team tournament will match two Mexican teams, with Cruz Azul meeting Tigres UANL. Tigres beat Club America on penalty kicks in the other semifinal in Houston.