Galaxy defeat Nashville, will play rival LAFC in MLS Cup playoffs
Galaxy coach Greg Vanney has been around MLS from the start, long enough to know the regular season and the postseason aren’t the same thing. Few players on his team know that, however, so Vanney made a point of treating Saturday’s playoff opener differently.
Although the team was playing at home, the Galaxy spent Friday night at the JW Marriott at LA Live, ate dinner and breakfast together, then bused to the stadium.
“It definitely felt different,” said defender Julián Araujo, one of 13 players who made their playoff debuts Saturday. “We woke up, it was different. But it was all good to have everybody together, be ready and all on the same mission.”
Also good was the fact Vanney’s plan paid off, with Araujo’s second-half header giving the Galaxy a 1-0 win over Nashville SC and a spot Thursday in the Western Conference semifinals against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium.
“It’s really a tournament, a knockout tournament, and you want to be playing your best soccer as you arrive into that tournament,” Vanney said of the playoffs. “You want to have momentum, you want to have confidence [and] you want to be moving in that direction.”
Good timing helps too and the Galaxy certainly had that. The goal by Araujo was just his second in MLS — and first in a stadium with fans — and the shutout was the first in 14 games for goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who was also making his playoff debut.
Midsummer additions Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman have reinvigorated the Galaxy as they prepare for their MLS Cup playoff showdown against Nashville SC.
“A lot of us are new to the league. And we kind of have to create that experience for ourselves,” Bond said. “Today was obviously a big moment for us.”
For the franchise as well. The most successful team in league history with five MLS titles, the Galaxy have fallen on hard times lately, losing more games than they’ve won since their last home playoff game in 2016. No one on this year’s roster was in uniform for the team’s last postseason game three years ago.
Captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández said the added postseason pressure made Saturday’s game enjoyable.
“I had a lot of fun because, I mean, you work the whole year to be in this scenario,” he said. “When you have the opportunity, you just need to live the moment.”
Even when the moment starts at noon, too early, apparently, for many of the team’s fans, who failed to sell out the game?
“If they asked us to play at six in the morning, we’ll play at six in the morning,” Hernández added in Spanish. “We’re lucky to be in the playoffs.”
Despite the early start, the Galaxy controlled a scoreless first half in which they had the ball for 30 of the 45 minutes. They finally found the back of the net early in the second half, with Hernández scoring on a breakaway, but the goal was taken off the board after referee Armando Villarreal consulted a video replay and concluded that Araujo had fouled Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar early in the build-up.
Araujo made up for the mistake 10 minutes later, stepping in front of Nashville defender Shaq Moore at the far post to head in a bending cross from Samuel Grandsir at the end line. Araujo’s only other professional goal came in October 2020, when COVID-19 forced teams to play in empty stadiums.
Riqui Puig nearly doubled the advantage in the 77th minutem, but his right-footed shot from the top of the box was lifted over the crossbar. The Galaxy then hunkered down, holding off several desperate Nashville charges to run their record to 6-1-5 over their last 12 games, the best mark in the Western Conference.
“The group is playing the best soccer it’s played in the last few years,” Vanney said. “There’s consistency, there’s continuity, there’s a composure now in the group. We’re playing well but for me, what’s in the past is in the past.
“What’s in front of us is everything to focus on now.”
That would be Thursday’s game with their bitter rivals 12 miles up the Harbor Freeway. It’s one the Galaxy will enter with some playoff experience under their belts.
“There seems to be kind of a spirit that’s grown, especially over the last two months or so,” said Bond, who finished with five saves. “We’re kind of finding that at the right time now.
“We’re producing results and finding momentum when it matters most.”