Photo by Nick Turchiaro/ISIphotos.com
By ADAM SERRANO
CARSON, Calif. — The stakes are clear for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Toronto FC.
Fueled by a crowd of nearly 47,658 at the Rogers Centre, TFC jumped out to a 2-0 lead last Wednesday, but the Galaxy roared back, scoring two goals — including an 88th-minute equalizer from Landon Donovan — to bring the aggregate to 2-2 going into Wednesday night's second leg (10 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel).
Donovan's late goal means that the Galaxy need a victory or either a 0-0 or 1-1 draw to advance in regulation, but TFC finds itself in a favorable position after a rough weekend for the defending MLS Cup champions. The Galaxy head into the match a battered team after a rough 3-1 defeat at the hands of Real Salt Lake, while Toronto was afforded a bye in Week 1.
Even though Los Angeles may not have resemembed the side that took MLS by storm in 2011, the defending champions believe that the best is yet to come.
"The first game of the year is always a tough one and usually your second, third, fourth and fifth games are some of your best games of the year, because you are finally fit and you’re fresh," Donovan said. "Aside from that, they have the advantage of spending all week preparing for us. We were for the last four days preoccupied with Salt Lake, so now we have a quick turnaround to prepare."
That quick turnaround has been a source of concern for the Galaxy since Saturday’s defeat against RSL. Rather than sit his starters in the home opener, head coach Bruce Arena ran his starting XI against RSL–allowing eight players to go 90 minutes in both matches. Following last Saturday’s defeat and yet again after the club’s training session on Tuesday, the Galaxy manager promised to "heavily" tinker with his squad for the return leg.
But with the Galaxy facing off against Toronto on three days’ rest rather than the two that they had prior to their home opener, the club’s fatigue issue may be rendered moot.
"It can be a little overblown too, the fatigue factor," said defender Todd Dunivant. "It was mental mistakes [last Saturday] and maybe part of that is heavy legs, but it’s kind of a fluke play on the own goal and then we let ourselves down from there. We kind of let the game slip.
"You can push through that fatigue a little bit and at least keep a good shell, and that’s kind of what we’ve done in the past. The fatigue thing can be a little overblown and there won’t be any excuses."
While the Galaxy was forced to lick their wounds after a difficult loss to RSL over the weekend, Toronto has had seven days rest to prepare for the second leg. Not only will Winter's group be the rested side, but it will also be bolstered by the returns of midfielder Julian de Guzman and forward Nick Soolsma. Both players were absent from the first leg due to yellow card accumulation.
De Guzman and Soolsma will be expected to provide an added boost to a TFC side that shined at times during the first leg, quickly jumping on top of L.A. but fading badly as the match wore on. TFC is a confident group even though a result at the Home Depot Center — where attendance will be capped at 7,500 because of a mid-week agreement with Cal State University Dominguez Hills, where the HDC is situated — is typically hard to come by for the opposition.
"We're still in this game," said forward Danny Koevermans. "Of course it is going to be difficult, we have to beat them — or of course a 3-3 draw or more — we have to beat them, we have respect for L.A., and maybe we have a chance and we can beat them."
But, does the Galaxy's fatigue provide TFC with an edge?
"Maybe," admitted Koevermans. "If we beat them [Wednesday], the people will say [the Galaxy] was fatigued… It's always the thing that you say when the game is done. Let's hope for us tomorrow they will say they were a little bit fatigued and we beat them."
While the clinical Dutch striker leads the TFC’s charge on offense, Toronto's hopes of knocking off the Galaxy rest squarely on the shoulders of midfielder Torsten Frings. In the first leg, the German was at his best, providing a stunning assist on Luis Silva’s second goal, while also covering for Toronto's shaky back four.
After starting the match as a holding midfielder, Frings quickly dropped back to a deeper sweeper role where he was able to orchestrate Toronto's play on both sides of the ball.
"He’s a really clever player. He’s an excellent passer and he’s a good leader. I heard him all night talking to their guys, directing them, leading them," said Donovan. "He makes it difficult, because when you have someone who is really sort of a holding midfielder but when he drops back and plays in that spot it’s difficult because he can put the ball wherever he wants."
With a date in the semifinals against either the Seattle Sounders or Santos Laguna at stake, it was Dunivant who best summed up the motivation, not just of the Galaxy, but for both clubs.
"It’s a big tournament and we’re putting a lot into it. We haven’t come this far to bow out now," said Dunivant. "Without a doubt we’re putting everything we have into this. It’s a big priority for our organization, for our team and for the league as a whole. If we want to be on par with everyone else in the world eventually, we’ve got to first conquer our region and that’s Mexico and Canada and everyone else."