Los Angeles Soccer: Morelia
Club Tijuana came into the Mexican Primera Division's spring championship aiming for survival. They claimed more than that Sunday, nailing down their first postseason berth in the country's top league.
The Xolos, who would have qualified had Pachuca or Jaguares failed to win their games Saturday, needed at least a draw Sunday afternoon against visiting Pumas UNAM -- and pulled out a 1-1 tie, going ahead on Duvier Riascos' goal 12 minutes into the second half and holding on after Javier Cortes equalized in the 89th minute.
Tijuana (7-3-7) finished seventh among 18 clubs and will face second-seeded Monterrey (9-3-5) in the quarterfinals, opening at home Wednesday and playing away Saturday.
Tijuana was promoted from the second-tier Liga de Ascenso last year and finished 15th in the fall Apertura. One team is relegated every year, and the Xoloitzcuintles were at the bottom of the “percentages table” -- points per game over three years -- heading into the Clausura. They lost just once in their first 10 games to reach safe ground, and finished 3-1-2 to snare their berth.
Santos Laguna (11-3-3), runner-up to UANL Tigres in the Apertura and three times in the last four championships, is the top seed and will open against Jaguares de Chiapas. No. 1 isn't the most advantageous position: Regular-season champions have lost in their playoff openers the last four seasons, in seven of the last nine championships and 13 of the last 20.
The best bets, if history holds: Monterrey (second seeds have won six of the past 20 titles) or No. 3 America (third seeds have won eight times).
A quick rundown of the Clausura campaign:
- WHO'S IN
Santos closed with seven wins in its last eight games to hold off Monterrey (9-3-5), America (9-3-5), fourth-seeded Morelia (9-4-4) and fifth-seeded Tigres (9-4-4) for the top spot, clinching as Oribe Peralta scored his eighth and ninth goals in a 3-1 victory at Atlas. L.A.-born former Galaxy star Herculez Gomez netted five goals in just 417 minutes, plus another six to send the Torreon-based club to the CONCACAF Champions League final, which was won by Monterrey.
CARSON -- The Galaxy now know what's needed in Honduras: a victory.
What they don't know is whether they'll have their captain for Thursday's CONCACAF Champions League group finale against Motagua.
Landon Donovan, nursing a quadriceps injury suffered Oct. 1 against Real Salt Lake, said Tuesday he wasn't sure he'll be ready to go in the Group A clash, which will determine whether the Galaxy moves on to next year's quarterfinals or exits the competition.
“We'll determine [if I'm playing] on Thursday,” said Donovan, who spent Tuesday's practice session in the trainer's room. “We'll just play it day by day and see what we get to Thursday. ... The body's weird. Sometimes you heal quickly, sometimes you don't. I have every intention of playing, but if I'm not ready, I'm not ready.”
The Galaxy is in must-win territory again after Morelia's 2-1 comeback win Tuesday night over Costa Rican champion Alajuelense in the other Group A finale. Morelia, from Mexico, qualified for the knockout stage with the result, captured on goals three minutes apart early in the second half by Joao Rojas and Miguel Sabah.
It wasn't unexpected. The Galaxy, which with different results might have required no more than a tie or even a tight defeat, had figured all along they could triumph only with a triumph.
“We need to get a result,” David Beckham said before Morelia's victory. “It's going to be a tough place to go and win, but it's a must. We have to go there and win.”
Morelia and Alajuela are 4-2-0 with 12 points. The Galaxy (3-2-0) would pull even with a victory but finish atop the group with better goal difference (plus-1) in matches among the three. Morelia (even) beats Alajuelense (minus-1) in the same tiebreaker. (Alajuela will advance if L.A. fails to win.)
The key result in all this was the Galaxy's 2-0 victory Aug. 25 at Home Depot Center over Alajuela, on goals by Omar Gonzalez and Chad Barrett. The home team won every other meeting among the trio by one goal.
The final round of group play in the CONCACAF Champions League begins Tuesday night, and the biggest game -- for the Galaxy's purposes, at least -- has Costa Rican champ Alajuelense visiting Mexico's Morelia.
The teams are 1-2 in Group A, with the Galaxy sitting third, and what happens won't matter to L.A. as long as it wins Thursday night against Motagua in Honduras. That'll give it one of the group's two berths in next year's quarterfinals.
What happens at Estadio Morelos -- kickoff is 5 p.m. PT, Telefutura (KFTR/Channel 46) will televise -- will determine exactly what the Galaxy needs in Tegucigalpa:
- If Morelia wins: The Galaxy must defeat Motagua.
- If Alajuelense wins: The Galaxy needs only a draw to advance. If Alajuela wins by three goals, the Galaxy could lose by one goal as long as they can catch or surpass Morelia for total goals. With more goals, they would get through. If even, lots would be drawn to determine who moves on. If Alajuela wins by four, a one-goal loss of any scoreline would be enough for L.A.
- If it's a draw: The Galaxy must defeat Motagua.
1. Alajuelense (Costa Rica) 4-1-0 (7-4) 12 points
2. Morelia (Mexico) 3-2-0 (9-4) 9
3. Galaxy 3-2-0 (7-4) 9
4. Motagua (Honduras) 0-5-0 (2-13) 0
Alajuelense won its game Thursday night in the CONCACAF Champions League, surging to a three-point lead over the Galaxy and Morelia in Group A.
The Costa Rican champions' odds of reaching next year's knockout stage: not good.
The CCL's “group of death” has followed form throughout, and if next month's group finales continue the process, it's the Galaxy and Morelia which will be moving on to the quarterfinals.
Alajuela (4-1-0) edged visiting Motagua, 1-0, on Jonathan McDonald's first-half header and will need only a draw in its Oct. 18 showdown at Morelia to advance. The Galaxy moves on with a win Oct. 20 at Morelia, no matter what happens two days earlier.
The Galaxy (3-2-0), Morelia (3-2-0) and Alajuela have won every home game, and the Monarcas and La Liga won their games at Honduran champion Motagua (0-5-0). Morelia will be heavily favored to beat Alajuela, and the Galaxy might find the going easy in Honduras, with their foe focusing on domestic matters.
Motagua is one of just two of the 16 teams in the group stage that have been eliminated from contention -- Costa Rica's Herediano is the other.
Morelia could have clinched a quarterfinal berth with a draw Wednesday night at Home Depot Center, but Juninho scored from a corner kick in second-half stoppage to give the Galaxy a 2-1 victory. Had Juninho not scored -- or if it had been called back because Todd Dunivant, who wasn't active in the play, was in an offside position, Alajuelense's victory would have eliminated L.A.
If the Galaxy and Morelia win their final matches, all three leaders will have 12 points. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head results, and all three would be 2-2-0 in games among the three.
CARSON -- The Galaxy found redemption when they most needed it Wednesday night, washing away the frustration and injustice of the past few weeks with a stoppage-time goal that delivered a must-have victory in their biggest showdown of the season.
And, of course, everyone took a gander at the linesman, just to make sure.
Juninho's end-of-the-game finish from a corner kick delivered a 2-1 triumph over Morelia at Home Depot Center, exorcizing whatever demons remained from a controversial defeat to the Monarcas in Mexico and leaving L.A. 90 minutes from a berth among the final eight when CONCACAF's Champions League reaches the knockout stage early next year.
“It felt like poetic justice,” said left back Todd Dunivant, who made the feed for Mike Magee's first-half opener, then played a pivotal role in corralling Morelia's counterattack as the Galaxy gambled heavily in the final 10 minutes or so. “I mean, it was pretty ironic the way it happened. Essentially, a tale of two games, and this time it worked out for us and not for them.”
L.A. needed a bit of fortune, a lot of resolve and a series of corner kicks at the end to poke home the winner and put behind them the phantom call that erased Robbie Keane's would-be winner in a 2-1 defeat at Morelia two weeks ago.
It came from the last of three corner kicks near the end, with Chad Barrett rising to nod Landon Donovan's serve into the goalmouth, and Juninho's shot found its way through diving Monarcas goalkeeper Federico Villar and into the net.
The Galaxy, with David Beckham suspended and Keane out with a gluteal injury, was the aggressor from the start, and it paid off with Magee's 21st-minute goal.
A Michael Stephens long ball cleared a scrum at the top of the Morelia box, and Dunivant tracked it down on the left byline and played the ball through defender Marvin Cabrera's legs to Magee. He side-footed it first-time, and Villar, partially screened by Adam Cristman, couldn't keep it from its path inside the far post.
The Monarcas got the equalizer with help from some sloppy defending in the 60th minute. Bryan Jordan cut off a Damian Manso ball into L.A.'s box for Yasser Corona, but Rafael Marquez Lugo got to the ball before Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders or defender Omar Gonzalez, and he was able to slip it past them.
Saunders immediately raced toward Jordan, chastising him for the play, but Corona would have had an open net had Jordan not intervened.
CARSON -- The Galaxy's failure to reach the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League would be remembered primarily for the phantom offside call that cost them a would-be winning goal two weeks ago at Morelia.
If they do move on, it will be Wednesday's rematch with the Mexicans at Home Depot Center that will play largest in the tale -- it's the first truly must-win game L.A. has played this year, and they know what's waiting if victory escapes them.
“This is an elimination game,” captain Landon Donovan noted as the Galaxy (2-2-0) wrapped up preparations for their fifth Group A clash in the region's club championship. “If we lose the game, we're done.”
Well, nearly so, but if they win, they're probably through to next year's quarterfinals, one of the club's primary goals this season. That would require one more victory -- Oct. 20 against winless Motagua in Tegucigalpa, Honduras -- but any tiebreakers are going to favor L.A.
Morelia (3-1-0) will clinch a final-eight berth with a victory, and Costa Rican champion Alajuelense (3-1-0) could then grab the group's other spot with a win or draw Thursday against Motagua (0-4-0).
A draw would keep the Galaxy alive if Alajuela loses or ties Thursday, but they'd need help in the group finales from Morelia, which is home Oct. 18 against Costa Ricans.
“You don't want to deal with that,” Donovan said. “And it's unfortunate [we're where we are], because after two games we were in the power position. The third game [at Morelia] really hurt. The missed call really hurt us. And then playing a poor game [in last week's loss at Alajuelense] in the fourth game hurt us. So this becomes essential.”
The Galaxy will be without David Beckham, who is suspended after receiving his second yellow card of the tournament last week, and might be missing Robbie Keane, who is recovering from a gluteal injury and will be a game-time decision.
'ROBBED OF POINTS': Keane played a huge role in the first meeting with the Mexican club, scoring L.A.'s first goal and netting another in the 90th minute that should have provided a 2-1 lead. An errant offside call -- Keane was at least three yards onside -- erased the goal, and Miguel Sabah's finish two minutes later gave Morelia the victory.
“I think using the word 'we were cheated' is too strong a word, it's not fair,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “But we were robbed of points there. By anybody's imagination. That was very strange. It's been a strange tournament in terms of officiating for us.”
Four of nine games in the 10th “jornada” in the fall Apertura finished at 1-1, including meetings between first-place Jaguares and fourth-place UANL Tigres and between Cruz Azul and Guadalajara, who sit in second and third.
Surprising Jaguares (5-2-3) rallied after conceding a late goal to Lucas Lobos, pulling even with Tigres (4-1-5) on Jorge Rodriguez's 89th-minute strike. Omar Arellano tallied in the first half for Guadalajara (5-2-3) and Edixon Perea in the second for Cruz Azul (5-2-3).
Fifth-place Pumas UNAM (5-3-2), the spring Clausura winner, won at Estudiantes Tecos to pull more or less even with the teams above it. The top three have 18 points, Tigres and Pumas 17, and Atlante sits just two points further behind after its fourth successive one-goal victory.
Another four teams have 14, and three more have 13. Sixteen of 18 clubs are firmly in the battle for eight playoff berths.
It's the makings for an incendiary finish.
- THE TOP 3
Monterrey has won the last two Apertura titles and last spring captured its first CONCACAF Champions League crown. The Rayados aren't playing like champions now.
They're 1-4-1 in league play since early August, and a 2-1 loss Saturday to Gallos Blancos in Queretaro dropped them from sixth to 11th in the table. The Champions League campaign also has been a trudge, with shutout losses at home against the Seattle Sounders and at Comunicaciones in Guatemala threatening to keep them from next year's quarterfinals and beyond.
Alajuela's 1-0 CONCACAF Champions League triumph Wednesday night at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto won't be remembered for much more than the intensity of the Costa Rican fans and Pablo Antonio's exquisite first-half free kick that provided the lone goal.
The Galaxy (2-2-0) dropped to third in the Group A with the defeat, behind Alajuelense (3-1-0) and Morelia (3-1-0), which picked up a road win Thursday, winning, 2-0, against Motagua in Honduras.
Home teams have won every game in the group except the two in Tegucigalpa, and therein lies the Galaxy's path to next year's knockout stage of the region's club championship. It's rather simple, really: Win the last two group games -- against Morelia on Wednesday night at Home Depot Center and Oct. 20 at Motagua -- and L.A. is through.
All because the loss in suburban San Jose was, in one very real sense, a victory. Not that it felt like one.
Landon Donovan said the Galaxy “were a little na´ve in the way we played, the way we went about things” and David Beckham acknowledged that L.A., after Donovan went just wide with a rebound in the fourth minute, didn't “create too much after that” and that “sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say you were beaten by a team that performed better on the night and also scored a great goal.”
“I don't think we played well,” Arena said. “The field was real difficult to play on. Obviously, our opponent is more comfortable on the surface. We're not using it as an excuse, but it's a terrible field to play this kind of competition on. ... You don't want to use that as an excuse. That would not be fair. That would not give our opponent the credit they deserve.”
Winning on the road, especially in Mexico and Central America, is difficult in the Champions League, and field conditions are part of it. Alajuela's turf is similar to Club Tijuana's at Estadio Caliente: green plastic with rubberized pellets that offers little give and unnatural bounces, and La Liga's manager, Oscar Ramirez, didn't disagree with Arena's assessment.
“It's difficult in Costa Rica,” he said through an interpreter. “We don't have the kinds of fields you have in the U.S. It's difficult for grass. It rains too much.”
That's true. San Jose is surrounded by rain forests, and torrential rains hit both days the Galaxy was in town, almost like clockwork, right around 2 p.m. How that impacts grass fields is anyone's guess, but Alajuela knows its advantages and used them against the Galaxy.
MORELIA, Mexico -- As one press-box wit noted following L.A.'s loss to Morelia in a CONCACAF Champions League clash, there is a substantial crime rate in Michoacan.
The Galaxy learned this the hard way Tuesday night, when it was robbed of one goal -- and Morelia was possibly given another -- in a 2-1 decision that raised some extraordinary questions about CONCACAF's policy for assigning officials for its most important matches.
Robbie Keane's would-be winner in the 90th minute was waved off by a phantom offside call, flagged by Honduran linesman Oscar Velasquez, as a flurry of late decisions went against L.A.
It was, frankly, criminal.
“I really don't know what to say,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said to begin the postgame news conference. “I thought some difficult decisions went against us to decide the game. ... I thought we were on the end of some bad decisions at the end of the game.”
It snowballed over the final 10 minutes, when the Galaxy -- holding onto an edge supplied through Robbie Keane in the 52nd minute -- conceded an 83rd-minute equalizer to Adrian Aldrete, saw Keane's second goal wiped away, then absorbed another phantom call, a foul against Frankie Hejduk, that started the sequence leading to Miguel Sabah's stoppage-time winner.
The offside call on Keane was the most egregious of several questionable decisions, all favoring Morelia.
Omar Gonzalez, about 8 yards out, sharply headed Landon Donovan's corner kick. Monarcas goalkeeper Federico Villar made the save, and Keane deposited the rebound. Who knows what Velasquez saw -- or thought he saw.
When Gonzalez made contact with the ball, the critical moment in the offside ruling, Keane was at the top of the 6-yard box and was stepping toward the net. Gerardo Lugo was in the 6, about 3 yards off the goal line -- meaning Keane was about 3 yards onside.
“It didn’t look offside,” Keane said. “I didn’t think I was offside, but I have to look back [at the tape] to see that.”
That left space to exploit, and when the Galaxy finally took advantage, early in the second half, Robbie Keane demonstrated why he could be so valuable an addition.
Instead, Morelia rallied for a 2-1 Group A victory, pulling out three points on Miguel Sabah's header two minutes into stoppage. Saunders had the shot covered, but it ricocheted off him and rolled into the net.
The Monarcas tied the score nine minutes earlier when Saunders fumbled Adrian Aldrete's 83rd-minute blast across the goal line.
It was a tough ending for Saunders, who was certainly L.A.'s -- and perhaps the game's -- man of the match, making seven superb saves, including at least three of real brilliance in the second half -- two on Rafael Marquez Lugo and another, even better, on Jorge Gastelum.
He had Aldrete's sharp shot covered, too, but it slipped through his legs, and although he leapt on the ball while it was still on the goal line, he pushed it into the goal while wrapping his body around it.
“I don't really know what to say,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “I thought some difficult decisions went against us to decide the game. ... I thought Josh played well. We don't even know if the first [Morelia] goal was a goal.”
Arena also was troubled by linesman Oscar Velasquez's decision to flag Keane offside in the 90th, after he knocked in a rebound -- for a would-be 2-1 lead -- after Morelia goalkeeper Federico Villar made a diving save on Omar Gonzalez.
The result dropped L.A. to 2-1-0 in the regional club championship and vaulted Morelia (2-1-0) atop the group. The teams meet again Sept. 28 at Home Depot Center.
The most important moments were at the end for three Mexican Primera Division teams over the weekend. Stoppage-time strikes delivered a huge win for Morelia and gave Club Tijuana and Monterrey a share of the points in their matches.
Morelia (3-3-1), which still has a game in hand over most of the field stemming from the gunshots-halted clash last month at Santos Laguna, vaulted from 15th to 10th with a stunning 1-0 decision at Cruz Azul. Joao Rojas scored the 92nd-minute decider from Aldo Ramirez's penetrating feed.
Tijuana (1-4-3), which has been hamstrung by bad luck more so than bad form, was set to go down at Toluca after conceding another questionable penalty kick, but Jose Sand headed home Richard Ruiz's cross in the 92nd to provide a 1-1 draw.
Monterrey's push for a point was more dramatic. The Rayados (4-3-1), down to 10 men after Jesus Zavala's 21st-minute red card surrendered a two-goal advantage against Puebla as former Chivas USA forward Isaac Romo tallied twice in the second half. They were redeemed by a controversial penalty-kick call, and Luis Perez slotted home from the spot in the 94th for a 3-3 tie.
- THE TOP 3
1. TALE OF TWO ROUTS
UANL Tigres was the top team in the spring Clausura, winning the regular-season title before an upset loss in the first round of the playoffs. Pumas UNAM was crowned champion. They were on different sides of blowouts that appear to confirm their destinies this fall.
MORELIA, Mexico -- FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders made history, and if that was good for Major League Soccer, it wasn't so grand for the Galaxy.
MLS is 2 for 2 in CONCACAF Champions League clashes in Mexico this summer, quite an achievement -- at least at the surface -- after the league's teams failed to win south of the border in its first 21 tries.
The Galaxy tries to make it three in a row Tuesday night, when it takes on Morelia in a Group A showdown at Estadio Morelos that figures to be much tougher than what Dallas or Seattle had to overcome.
“We're going to play against the first team. In my mind. ... I would think they're going to play their best team.”
It's a fine team, too, featuring Mexican national team forwards Rafael Marquez Lugo and Miguel Sabah, former national-teamer Jaime Lozano, Ecuadoran star Joao Rojas and center back Joel Huiqui, among others. The Monarcas, 1-1-0 in Group A, are rounding into top form and coming off a 1-0 triumph Saturday over mighty Cruz Azul in Mexico City.
“Having gotten a result this weekend makes it a little easier [for Morelia],” Arena said. “They're under a little pressure [at 3-3-1] in their league, and I think they would have been thrilled to come home with a point, and they got three. So that takes a little pressure off them. They can say this week this game is a little more important than [Friday's Primera Division encounter against Gallos Blancos de Queretaro].”
FC Dallas opened its CCL campaign Aug. 17 with a 1-0 win, on Marvin Chavez's goal, in Mexico City over Pumas. The reigning Primera champs left out most of their first-teamers. Seattle stepped up six days later for a 1-0 win, on a superb Alvaro Fernandez finish, at Monterrey.
“We don't talk about any of that stuff,” Arena said. “I think the players are aware of it. I think they go into these games believing they can get a result. I mean, that's half the battle. I would think for a number of years that teams in this league didn't even think they could get a result.”
There was good reason for that. From 1997, the first year MLS clubs were eligible for CONCACAF's club tournament, until 2008, Mexican foes won all nine meetings played on Mexican soil. They outscored the MLS teams, 29-3, and scorelines included 6-1, 6-0 and 5-0.
MORELIA, Mexico -- The Galaxy's training session Monday evening at Estadio Morelos had just begun when a voice boomed out from the hills towering above the facility, delivering an expletive-filled rant directed at Landon Donovan.
The message, in unaccented English, was clear: Forget you!
That's the cleaned-up version, of course, and it's a sentiment shared by many Mexicans, stemming largely from a 2004 incident in which Donovan, preparing for an Olympic qualifying showdown, urinated on the field during a training session at Guadalajara's Estadio Jalisco.
That in itself is unremarkable -- players urinate on fields all over the world -- but the intensity of Mexico's rivalry with the U.S. turned it into an international matter of sorts, with El Tri's supporters accusing Donovan of insulting all of Mexico.
That's one of the things Rafael, who sells knock-off soccer jerseys at the marketplace a few blocks southeast of Morelia's main square, mentions when he says he “hates” Donovan.
“He's racist,” said the vendor. “He said he hates Mexicans.”
It's the primary issue, among Rafael and several of his colleagues working the narrow corridor in the bustling bazaar, surrounding Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League showdown with Morelia, the Galaxy's first Group A road encounter after winning twice at home in the region's club championship.
“That's why a lot of people are going to the game,” said the 30-something Rafael, who says he lived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and says his father calls the Southland home. “To curse at Donovan.”
Thing is, it isn't so. Donovan isn't a racist, in no way hates Mexicans and has never said he does, not that Rafael and his friends were going to be convinced of that. All they want is to see him fail. And booed at every opportunity.
“There's nothing I can do about that. It's beyond my control,” Donovan said after he was told what was being said about him. “I grew up [in Redlands] with a lot of Latin Americans, and I've got friends that are from all parts of Central America and Mexico. It is ignorant because there is no knowledge beyond it, but it is what it is.”
With David Beckham back at home, Donovan has been by far the most popular Galaxy player in Morelia, besieged by autograph hounds and fans wanting a photo with him on the rare occasion he has stepped beyond the walls of the hillside resort the team is calling home for a couple of days.
“When you're on the field, they all yell at you and support their team,” Donovan said. “But when you see them on the street, everyone is respectful and nice. That's how it should be.”
The site hadn't been determined when the schedule was released last month, although it was hard to think of a better venue for the match. The Coliseum and Rose Bowl are too big, and Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium, which seats about 10,000, is too small, especially for a club like Morelia, which enjoys a strong following in Southern California.
Tickets for the 7 p.m. match go on sale Tuesday, and parking will be free -- as it was for last week's victory over Costa Rican champion Alajuelense. The Galaxy is 2-0-0 and atop Group A with four games to go. Their next game in the competition is Sept. 13 at Morelia.
Scenes of terror and turmoil unfolded at Santos Laguna's Estadio Corona in the most newsworthy event in the Mexican Primera Division last weekend, as gunshots rang out during the Guerreros' showdown with Morelia.
Players dropped to the turf, then scrambled off the field, and fans escaped from the stands and onto the stadium floor or ducked under seats after a series of explosions -- from outside the Torreon stadium, it turned out -- went off late in the first half Saturday.
Nobody at the game was hurt, but the stadium was evacuated and the match suspended amid great chaos. No word yet on when it will be rescheduled.
According to Mexican media, the trouble began when a pickup truck, allegedly carrying drug-cartel members, sped through a checkpoint and was chased by police. Once the truck was cornered, outside the stadium, a gun battle broke out. Part of the stadium afterward was pockmarked by bullet holes.
- THE TOP 3
No question, the club will contend for the Primera Division's fall Apertura title, especially once the attack catches up, as it should, to Brazilian manager Ricardo Ferretti's masterful defensive plan.