BY OMAR SHAMOUT
CARSON, Calif. – For 45 minutes, the Los Angeles Galaxy had the look of a team more than capable of knocking off the two-time defending CONCACAF Champions League title holders.
Monterrey had other ideas, turning the second half of their semifinal first leg into a vivid reminder of why the Rayados have won the past two installments of this tournament.
Humberto Suazo reprised his role as CONCACAF goal machine, netting an 82nd-minute equalizer before Aldo DeNigris beat Omar Gonzalez on his way to scoring a stoppage-time winner that helped give Monterrey a 2-1 first-leg victory over the Galaxy at Home Depot Center on Wednesday.
The late-game collapse left a bitter taste among the Galaxy after a match they looked primed to win before Suazo and DeNigris pounced.
“We had our chances to win this game,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “A little but more experience and a little more quality and we win this game by a couple goals.”
The loss sets up the Galaxy with the extremely daunting task of having to beat Monterrey by multiple goals on the road in Mexico to reach the CONCACAF Champions League Final.
Monterrey really turned up the pressure in the second half, and the Galaxy ultimately couldn’t overcome the loss of midfielder Juninho. The Brazilian standout was enjoying a strong match in central midfield before suffering an ankle injury that forced him out of the match in the 60th minute. Without Juninho’s presence in the middle, and with Monterrey making several attacking subs, the visitors from Mexico slowly took over the match.
“For the first 75 minutes, we were really putting a lot of pressure on them and not letting them play out of the back,” Gonzalez said. “When (Juninho) came out of the game it was a little harder for us to push our lines. They were putting in good crosses.”
Juninho’s replacement, Michael Stephens, failed to prevent Monterrey substitute Cesar Delgado from whipping on a cross on the right flank in the 83rd minute, which striker Aldo de Nigris headed on goal. Cudicini’s save rebounded to Suazo, who knocked it home.
Just eight minutes later, DeNigris tapped in the winner in the 90th minute after he raced past Gonzalez, onto a headed pass from Luis Madrigal that he converted past Cudicini. Gonzalez got caught ball-watching on the play, and his late reaction allowed DeNigris the necessary space to deliver the winning goal.
Monterrey’s manager, Victor Manuel Vucetich, said the players were spurned on by the chance to three-peat as CONCACAF champions, though he admitted players will always feel some pressure when the trophy is so close.
“It’s mostly a motivation,” Vucetich said, “to be able to try to achieve something that has not been achieved by any other team besides Monterrey.”
Early fouls bogged down the pace of the game in the opening 25 minutes, and both teams gave the ball away in key positions. Neri Cardozo was flagged offside twice on dangerous Monterrey counter attacks.
DeLaGarza opened the opened the scoring in the 28th minute, flicking the ball past goalkeeper Juan de Dios Ibarra. Keane played the ball to Magee on the left side of the penalty area, who lobbed a pass to an open DeLaGarza in front of goal––a much-needed contribution from an unlikely goal scorer
Suazo, who has two goals on the season so far, missed a golden chance to tie things up in the 52nd minute from eight yards out. But Galaxy goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini came up with a big-time reaction save to preserve the lead.
Galaxy forward Landon Donovan made his first home appearance of the season following an extended vacation, coming in for Jose Villarreal in the 63rd minute. The home crowd gave him a rousing ovation as he jogged onto the pitch, but their spirits dampened not long after.
Not to be outdone by Cudicini’s earlier heroics, Ibarra robbed striker Robbie Keane of a goal in the 67th minute, blocking his point blank shot in front of goal.
Slowly, the absence of Juninho took its toll on the Galaxy in midfield, with Monterrey capitalizing on his absence. The Mexican side put intense pressure on L.A. in the final 20 minutes and it paid off with goals from Suazo and DeNigris.
The two teams meet again in Monterrey on Wednesday, and while the Galaxy will be heavy underdogs next week, there was a sense that the mission wasn’t an impossible one.
“Hopefully we can turn the good 70 minutes into a good 90 minutes,” Gonzalez said. “If that happens, I think we can do it.”