L.A. pays a price as Pachuca wins pulsating final
CARSON, Calif. -- It was a scene that was poised to wash over the Los Angeles Galaxy like a balm. All Landon Donovan had to do was hit one more spot kick in a penalty shootout, and the Galaxy's improbable run to the SuperLiga title would be complete. Gone would be the questions about the team's character, the future of its coach, and the quality within the side -- well, at least for a few moments.
Yet in a twist that only Wes Craven could conjure up, Pachuca goalkeeper Miguel Calero turned into Freddy Krueger and saved Donovan's penalty. And when L.A. defender Abel Xavier skied his attempt high and wide one round later, what should have been the Galaxy's finest moment of the season instead turned into the Nightmare on Victoria Street. Pachuca was crowned SuperLiga champion, and L.A., despite delivering its best game in ages, was left to shake its collective head.
Capping off the evening was a potentially crippling injury to Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, who suffered a sprained right knee during a foot-to-foot challenge with Pachuca defender Fernando Salazar. It was all too much for embattled head coach Frank Yallop, who while praising his players, couldn't hide the frustration that has been building inside him over the last few weeks.
"I'm really proud of the way our guys came out because of all the crap we've been f------ through," Yallop said. "I'm telling you, it's been difficult to f------ deal with. I'm sorry to swear, but it's been hard. But they kept going, and that makes me proud. That's all I can say."
It was a performance that most observers, I among them, thought was beyond L.A.'s reach, especially when Beckham hobbled off after a mere 30 minutes. Just two minutes earlier, L.A. midfielder Pete Vagenas had capped off a horrid stretch of play by turning Christian Gimenez's low cross into his own net. A rout seemed in the cards.
Yet rather than fold, the Galaxy found the resolve that has been lacking for most of this season. Much of the credit must go to goalkeeper Joe Cannon, who pulled off a string of superb saves to keep his team in the match. But Calero wasn't idle either, twice denying Donovan in the second half with excellent stops of his own as the Galaxy seized more of the attacking initiative. So when Chris Klein equalized three minutes into stoppage time on a spectacular bicycle kick, a sense that the goal was deserved -- and that luck was finally smiling on the Galaxy -- pervaded the Home Depot Center.
"I don't think I could do that lying in my bed," said Klein said of his goal. "I saw it coming, and you just react."
Cannon was called upon to rescue his side with a few more clutch saves in extra time, and he rallied his team during the shootout, saving Gabriel Caballero's attempt after Vagenas' had been denied by Calero in the first round. When Pachuca's Marvin Cabrera rattled the crossbar with his attempt in the fifth round, it set the stage for Donovan, who had buried several clutch penalty kicks for the U.S. national team earlier this summer. But on this occasion, Donovan put the ball right in Calero's wheelhouse, allowing him to make a diving save to his right, albeit at a comfortable height.
"Usually I slow myself down and take a look at the goalie," Donovan said. "But in that moment I just panicked a little bit. And that's the worst place I could have put it. If I put it low, maybe it sneaks in. That's the disappointing part."
Now L.A. finds itself not only faced with the task of having to regroup in time for this weekend's match against Real Salt Lake, but it's almost certain that the Galaxy will do so without the services of Beckham. The Galaxy midfielder is set to have his knee scanned on Thursday, but admitted that an extended period on the sidelines is a distinct possibility.
"At this stage it's hard to tell, but [the knee] doesn't feel good," Beckham said. "With a ligament strain it's four to six weeks, but we'll have to wait and see."
On the plus side is the fact that the Galaxy came back without Beckham and in the process delivered the kind of performance that showed they are still willing to fight for their team and their coach, even as rumors of his imminent demise continue to swirl around him.
"The guys are 100 percent in [Yallop's] corner," Klein said. "We all know what goes on behind the scenes, and I think everyone in our locker room, to a man, has Frank's back. I know that I do, and I think the guys really want to see him stay because this is Frank's team, and Frank hasn't had his full team yet, and that's the disappointing thing."
As for Pachuca, it was just another day where the team showed up, won a trophy, punched the clock and showed its quality along the way. Some might quibble that it took two penalty kick shootouts for Pachuca to claim the SuperLiga crown, and that not once did it defeat an MLS side in regulation. But the attacking talent it possesses is undeniable, and were it not for Cannon's heroics, Pachuca would have won the game more comfortably. At the least, in an age when even the likes of Brazil are worshiping at the shrine of the tactical foul, it's encouraging to see a team with Pachuca's attacking verve be rewarded with trophies.
The organizers of the SuperLiga would agree, and must be pleased that the tournament's first-ever final was graced by such a pulsating encounter, even if it was a match that the hosts would just as soon forget.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.