The outcome of the match was secondary.
The ice pack that was wrapped to the back of Carlos Vela’s right hamstring was more important to LAFC by several orders of magnitude than the 3-3 draw it salvaged against the Galaxy or the two-goal deficit it erased Sunday night at Banc of California Stadium.
With only seven games left in the regular season, Major League Soccer’s most valuable player was injured.
The MLS Cup that was destined to be LAFC’s felt as if it’s up for grabs.
A historic season for both the player and franchise was suddenly in danger of ending in crushing disappointment.
Coach Bob Bradley described what Vela sustained as a “hamstring tweak.”
“I don’t think it’s a real bad one,” Bradley said, tapping his knuckles on the table at which he was seated for the postgame news conference.
However, Bradley acknowledged he wouldn’t be certain about the condition of his star player until the team receives the results of the MRI examination Vela is scheduled to undergo on Monday.
“Carlos, in just over a year and a half or whatever, every now and then, he will feel a little something that’s tight,” Bradley said. “It hasn’t ended up being anything bad yet. Hopefully, that’s the case.”
Vela was removed from the match in the 61st minute, eight minutes after he scored to erase what remained of a 3-1 deficit. The team’s medical staff had checked on him earlier.
His body language conveyed the belief he could have continued. Upon his departure, Vela looked down the sideline at Bradley with his arms outstretched. As Vela neared the LAFC bench, Bradley placed an arm around the striker and spoke a few words to him.
Before taking a seat, Vela punched the padded chair. His frustration had to be shared by the segment of the home crowd that understood the potential implications of what happened.
LAFC has an unusually talented group of players, especially for this league, and a proactive system that permits them to flourish. But Vela is the reason an LAFC team that would otherwise be very good is great.
A legitimate world-class player who was seriously courted by Barcelona of Spain in the offseason, Vela can change the complexion of a game on his own, providing the LAFC with an alternative form of attack when its collective approach fails.
As much as Vela and LAFC downplayed the injury after the game, the reality is that there is no such thing as a minor hamstring problem. Injuries like this linger. Even if they aren’t severe enough to sideline a player, they can slow him down.
Without Vela at full speed, LAFC isn’t LAFC.
Until Vela was replaced by newly acquired Brian Rodriguez, the match was shaping into a showcase of LAFC’s superior depth. With Vela scoring his league-leading 27th goal in the 53rd minute to level the game at 3-3, Bradley’s team overcame a nightmare start to secure a point.
LAFC encountered trouble developing an offensive rhythm in the first half, with Jonathan dos Santos blocking passing lanes and making timely tackles in the midfield for the Galaxy.
The home team also failed to keep track of the Galaxy’s new attacker, Cristian Pavon, allowing him to carry the ball into the final third of the field in the second minute and set up Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s opening goal.
Latif Blessing headed in a close-range rebound in the 12th minute to level the score, but another defensive mistake by LAFC in the 15th minute permitted the Galaxy to reclaim the lead. Fabio Alvarez played a ball over the top to Ibrahimovic, who was in offside position, but the play was allowed to go on because the ball went off the top of the head of leaping defender Walker Zimmerman. Ibrahimovic danced around goalkeeper Tyler Miller and put the Galaxy back in front 2-1.
Zimmerman was involved in the next goal as well, as Pavon cut inside of him from the left flank in the 16th minute and unleashed a low shot that beat Miller to the near post.
Dos Santos noticeably slowed down as the game progressed. LAFC found more gaps in front of its opponent’s back line, from which it was able to play the ball wide and take advantage of the Galaxy’s weak outside backs. A cross by Steven Beitashour from the right end line in first-half stoppage time resulted in another loose ball in front of the goal that Blessing converted for a goal.
It was only a matter of time before LAFC tied the score. Vela performed the honors, taking a feed from Mark-Anthony Kaye on the right side of the penalty box and slanting a shot by goalkeeper David Bingham.
The stadium erupted with cheers.
By the end of the night, however, none of those details mattered as much. What was important, what would determine where LAFC would go from here, was something that remained unknown.