When Steven Gerrard left Liverpool to join the Galaxy and Major League Soccer last July he did so hoping to win a league championship, the one thing that eluded him during 17 years with the Reds.
That didn’t happen, however, with his first season with the Galaxy coming to a premature end Wednesday in a 3-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders.
The loss did more than just extend Gerrard’s title drought, though. It also marked the earliest playoff exit in history for the Galaxy, winners of three of the past four MLS Cups.
“If you don’t win trophies at the end of a season, it’s always disappointing,” said Gerrard, one of two high-profile midseason signings for the Galaxy.
And all that star power couldn’t help the team on defense, where major breakdowns — including one by Gerrard — led to all three Seattle goals.
“It’s very Irish to never point fingers. But as a group of players, you know we have to take responsibility for ourselves,” said Robbie Keane, captain of both the Galaxy and the Irish national team. “When you concede three goals away from home … it’s always difficult to win.
“It’s disappointing when you’re the champions and you know what it feels like to lift that trophy. And now for it to be taken away from you, it’s difficult. We can sit here all day and say ‘ifs’ and ‘buts,’ but we just weren’t good enough, certainly in the last five or six weeks. That’s it.”
With a payroll of $19.5 million, the second-highest in league history, the Galaxy certainly had reason to expect more. Instead, the team plummeted after the summer additions of Gerrard and Mexican international Giovani dos Santos, winning just one of its final eight games.
In the past two weeks of the regular season, the Galaxy tumbled from the top of the MLS standings to fifth place in the Western Conference, forcing the team into a knockout-round playoff game on the road, where it had won just twice all season.
That didn’t change Wednesday when the Sounders, who had seen the Galaxy end their season three times in the past five years, finally exorcised that demon.
“It definitely feels special,” said Seattle Coach Sigi Schmid, whose résumé as the winningest coach in league history now includes a playoff victory over the Galaxy as well.
And the Galaxy defense helped make that happen.
On the Sounders’ first goal, in the fifth minute, goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and defender Omar Gonzalez nearly collided going for a long cross into the box. The ball bounced off Ricketts’ hands directly to Seattle’s Clint Dempsey, who lined it into the back of the net.
Seven minutes later, Gerrard lost his man on a free kick, allowing Nelson Valdez to streak into the box unmarked to nudge home another goal.
The Galaxy answered with scores from Sebastian Lletget and Gyasi Zardes in a wild first half that saw the teams combine for four goals in the first 22 minutes.
But the team had no answer for Erik Friberg’s goal, which also came gift-wrapped in the 73rd minute after both A.J. DeLaGarza and Leonardo failed to clear a harmless pass into the box. Friberg eventually latched on to the free ball at the edge of the box and blasted a left-footed shot past Ricketts, who slipped on the wet artificial turf.
“Christmas came early in Seattle,” an angry Bruce Arena, the Galaxy’s coach and general manager, said afterward.
Seattle now goes on to the conference semifinals Sunday against either Dallas or Vancouver. The Galaxy, meanwhile, will go back to the drawing board.
“There are going to be changes,” Arena promised.
The team probably will be looking for an upgrade in goal since Ricketts, a midseason replacement for Jaime Penedo, who was released by the Galaxy after demanding a contract extension, will be 39 in June.
The team’s three designated-play spots are full, meaning Gonzalez figures to be gone as well. And though the team has a contract option on midfielder Juninho, the Brazilian’s agent is exploring options in Europe after seeing his client’s role in the Galaxy attack diminished by the addition of Gerrard.
Lletget, who came to the Galaxy last spring from West Ham United of the English Premier League, said he, too, would listen to offers from overseas.
But dos Santos, Gerrard and Keane, who had a career-high 20 goals this season, are all expected to come back a year older and, in Gerrard’s case, a little hungrier.
“You have to dose yourself down and get ready to go again,” he said. “Before you know it, the season will be starting again.”