By ADAM SERRANO
CARSON, Calif. — Championship seasons are riddled with season-defining moments that often propel a team from mediocrity to glory.
One such moment may have come for the Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday when goalkeeper Josh Saunders stopped an Omar Cummings penalty kick in the 91st minute to preserve the club's 2-1 victory against the Colorado Rapids. Just as the Galaxy appeared certain for full points, referee Ramon Hernandez's dubious decision to award a penalty for David Junior Lopes' apparent foul on Andre Akpan in box had the defending MLS Cup champions up in arms.
But despite having luck go against them at times this season, Saunders' "educated guess" on Cummings' penalty saved the three points and may go on to propel the Galaxy back to their dizzying form of a season ago.
"You never know how things shake out, but that could mean the difference between a playoff spot or not, seeding, it could potentially be a Supporter’s Shield-saving moment, but you never know," Landon Donovan said of the save.
"We’ve definitely turned the corner," Donovan added. "There’s no question, but that could go away quickly with a bad performance. It’s just being consistent now and that’s what this team has been about for the last three years is consistently doing things the right way. "
Regardless of whether the victory will help Los Angeles reach the championship form of a season ago, the save was immense for Saunders, who, like the Galaxy, has seen his form take a dip during the club's early season struggles. A year after conceding 17 goals in 19 MLS games, Saunders has conceded 10 in just six matches this season.
As the Galaxy's defense has dealt with the loss of Omar Gonzalez in the middle, so has Saunders, who has had to take a larger leadership role in organizing a Galaxy back line that remains a work in progress.
“I was disappointed, we weren’t getting results, I wasn’t playing the way that I wanted to and wasn’t aggressive enough, but that’s just a learning experience, getting your timing and your confidence back. Hopefully, like I said, that’s something that is going to change," Saunders said.
The Galaxy goalkeeper will get a chance to build on his clutch save this Saturday when the Galaxy host FC Dallas, as the club searches for its third straight victory.
But will Saunders' penalty kick heroics prove to be a season-defening moment for the Galaxy? It's too soon to tell, but that's the hope inside the Galaxy locker room.
"It’d be great if it was, but over the course of the year, you need a couple things like that to happen," Saunders said. "If you look at moments like that and you hope that those are the moments that change the season around, and hopefully that is a turning point for us."
LEONARDO RETURNS IN RESERVE ACTION
The Galaxy are not only turning the corner as a group, but Brazilian centerback Leonardo appears to be turning a corner of his own.
Leonardo returned to action on Tuesday during the club's reserve scrimmage against USL PRO side LA Blues, going 10 minutes in the first half. After tearing his anterior and lateral cruciate ligaments in his right knee last April, Leonardo's rehabilitation has been a trying one as the defender suffered a setback in his native Brazil during the offseason.
While head coach Bruce Arena admitted that Leonardo is still weeks away from returning to the field with the first team, Donovan is pleased with the Brazilian's progression after his first in-game appearance in more than a year.
"He looks really good, it was important for him Tuesday to play," Donovan said. "I think that psychologically, that’s important, but he needs to keep moving forward and I think that day by day he looks better. I think that (Thursday in training) was the best that I’ve seen him train by a mile, and it’s nice to have him back. When we get him back and Omar back, then we’re going to have a lot of depth at that position."
SALGADO RUMORS SURFACE
Rumors linking the Galaxy to further cover for their backline are hardly new, and the latest links tie the Galaxy to former Real Madrid standout Michel Salgado.
Earlier this week various reports — none citing any sources — surfaced in England linking Salgado, currently with Blackburn, to the Galaxy as well as other destinations in the Middle East. Salgado carries a strong European pedigree, having spent more than 10 seasons with Real Madrid before joining EPL side Blackburn in 2009. The right back is also a former fixture of the Spanish national team, playing 53 matches for La Furia Roja including appearances in the 2000 European Championship and 2006 World Cup.
Salgado carries a link to the Galaxy as he served as midfielder David Beckham's teammate with Real from 2003 to 2007. Although Beckham and the Spaniard remain close friends, the Galaxy midfielder told reporters on Thursday that he had heard nothing of a possible move for Salgado.
“I didn’t know, obviously, I know Michel and I’ll speak to him,” said Beckham. “Michel is a great player, he was obviously a legend at Real Madrid and he was a good friend to me when I was at Real as well. He’s a great defender, he’s aggressive, he wins the ball, he’s not worried about going into any tackle. He's an all-around good player."