Los Angeles Soccer: Motagua
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The gathering that greeted the Galaxy upon its return Thursday night to the Marriott Tegucigalpa, following their stirring CONCACAF Champions League triumph over Motagua, couldn't have been warmer -- or more spirited -- had the clash taken place in Carson.
Hundreds of fans crowded into the hotel lobby and onto the staircase leading to the second floor, where the team would dine, to greet the players, shrieking when they came into view as if it were 1964 and John, Paul, George and Ringo were on hand.
Heavy police security, complete with ubiquitous machine guns, held the crowd at bay. Most wanted a picture with David Beckham or perhaps his autograph, if that were possible, and it wasn't -- so they chanted his name, and when he stopped by to give them a wave after finishing his meal, the screams carried deep into the hotel's corridors and out the door, onto the street and into the rather upscale neighborhood.
It was the wildest response Honduras' capital had for its visitors, and it might have stunned the Galaxy's more experienced travelers, who know that any trek to Central America isn't complete without jeers, whistles, chants that can't be printed here and thrown objects, some of them nastier than you might imagine.
A month earlier in Costa Rica, Beckham and Co. were greeted warmly at the hotel, applauded when they took the field for warmups before their game against Alajuelense, then lambasted by a crowd of about 16,000 that sounded and felt far, far bigger.
On the eve of this trip, captain Landon Donovan noted that “we're going in with the expectation that it's going to be full, it's going to be loud, it's going to be relatively hostile.”
Not even close.
The Galaxy was treated like the home team from arrival until departure, saluted by dignitaries -- many of them lined up, with their children, outside L.A.'s locker room following the 1-0 victory that clinched the Group A title in the regional club championship and secured a berth in next year's quarterfinals.
“I've always been a big fan of the Honduran people. I think they've always been respectful,” Donovan said as his teammates dined, amid screams a few yards away. “[The reception here] shows you, one, how famous David is, again. And it's been nice.
“I think we expected the worst, and we kind of got the best.”
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- There were several heroes for the Galaxy in Thursday night's CONCACAF Champions League triumph at Motagua. Frankie Hejduk was the last -- and maybe the biggest.
L.A. was holding onto the 1-0 lead forged with Juninho's first-half goal, and the Hondurans, with Amado Guevara serving as orchestrator, were throwing everything into their attack.
As the clock neared 90 minutes, Guevara spread the ball wide to Milton Reyes on the right, and his inch-perfect cross into the goalmouth found Guillermo “Pando” Ramirez with only goalkeeper Josh Saunders between him and the net.
Hejduk stepped in, knocked the ball away, and Jerry Bengtson fired the loose ball over the crossbar. That was it for Motagua, and the Galaxy were celebrating passage to next year's quarterfinals no more than three minutes later.
“You could tell they were going to get a chance and that was their last one, and, luckily, it was,” Hejduk said. “At that point in the game, anything can happen, but this team all year has kept clean sheets, kept games at zeros, and maybe it could have gone either way, but it is a testament to the concentration of guys on the field.
“We were trying to kill off those last minutes of the game. It's never easy [in Central America] to keep games at zero ... but we did a great job as a team defensively.”
Ramirez played for the Galaxy in 2005, scoring just one goal -- but what a goal it was: an overtime strike to beat the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final. He did his best to topple the Galaxy, which had to win to advance to the regional club championship's knockout stage, but the ball bounced up on him, forcing him to take a touch with his chest. That enabled Hejduk to race in from behind, get a piece of the ball and knock it away.
“It was a crazy play, but at the end of the game, those plays happen,” Hejduk said. “They had nothing to lose at that point. They were throwing numbers forward trying to get as many guys in the box as they could, but our defense the whole entire night did an incredible job of just killing plays, and that was one of many that we killed off pretty well.”
LONG, TOUGH HAUL: When CONCACAF divied up 16 clubs in the Champions League group draw three months ago, it was clear which was this tournament's “group of death.”
That the Galaxy went on to prevail in Group A, against opposition for each of the region's other three dominant countries, is a real accomplishment, especially after what happened last month in Morelia, where Robbie Keane's would-be 90th-minute winner was wiped away by an errant offside call, and the Monarcas won in stoppage.
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Juninho has a way with space, time and distance, as he has demonstrated four times in Major League Soccer games this year, so his strike Thursday night against Motagua shouldn't come as a surprise.
The Brazilian midfielder's strike from about 35 yards -- a looping, dipping moment of pure brilliance -- might count as the Galaxy's goal of the year. It certainly was the most important.
Juninho's blast in the 29th minute, along with the superb team defense that followed, provided a 1-0 triumph over a hearty home side at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino and sent L.A. to next year's quarterfinals in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Galaxy (4-2-0) captured the Group A title with the victory and will learn soon -- but no word yet exactly when -- who they will face when the tournament's knockout stage begins, tentatively, late next February. The possibilities: MLS rivals Seattle and Toronto and Salvadoran club Isidro Metapan.
“This was certainly challenging,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “It was a very difficult game, and it's what we expected. We were fortunate to get a great goal by Juninho, and our team understood how to protect the lead in the second half.”
A big defensive play in the 90th minute by Frankie Hejduk, a couple of big saves by goalkeeper Josh Saunders, and solid play by center backs Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza in limiting star Motagua striker Jerry Bengston's effectiveness were critical, but it was Juninho that provided the magic.
He has scored four from outside the box in league play, but this one was his nicest from distance. He took a pass from Mike Magee, moved forward into open space, then unloaded a shot that looked as if it would float well above the crossbar.
It took a deceptive path, a rainbow that suddenly and violently dipped, leaving Motagua goalkeeper Donaldo Morales no chance as it tucked into the upper-right corner.
“We're on the bench saying, 'Shoot,' because we see it in practice all the time,” said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, whose quadriceps injury kept him out of the starting lineup but not off the field -- he came on in the 69th minute. “He can strike a ball as well as anybody.”
David Beckham, who was greeted warmly and was cheered throughout -- eliciting screams from the large contingent of teenage girls in the stadium -- agreed with the assessment.
“Juninho could do that in every game if he wanted to,” he said.
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- This one couldn't be simpler.
The Galaxy needs a victory Thursday night -- nothing else will do -- and the team they've got to beat has won only once since the end of August, sits at the bottom of its league and has dropped all five matches it has played in CONCACAF's Champions League, finding the net in only one of them.
Defending Honduran champion Motagua has nothing to play for in the regional club championship's Group A finale at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino, and that might just make them a most dangerous foe.
That's the Galaxy's thinking: This isn't going to be easy, but it's got to be done, no matter who is wearing the shirt, and no matter what is thrown their way.
“It'll be interesting to see, actually,” said L.A. captain Landon Donovan, who could miss the game (or start it on the bench) because of a lingering quadriceps injury. “It's a team that's been in a little bit of bad form. I know they're struggling in their league, but if I know those guys, they're prideful, and I'm sure their fans will be excited for the game -- a chance to see David [Beckham] will be exciting -- and my guess is they'll really be up for it.
“Obviously, they're out of the competition, but they're going to want to put on a good show for their fans, so we're going in with the expectation that it's going to be full, it's going to be loud, it's going to be relatively hostile, and it's going to be a hard game.”
A victory will send the Galaxy (3-2-0) to next year's quarterfinals. Anything else will end their Champions League campaign, and Costa Rica's Alajuelense (4-2-0) will join Mexico's Morelia (4-2-0) as Group A's qualifiers.
Alajuela and Morelia won their games in Tegucigalpa -- the home team has won every other match in the group -- and if L.A. can do so, it will win A and draw a final-eight assignment against one of three second-place teams: Seattle Sounders or Toronto FC or the runner-up in Group B, which could be the Colorado Rapids, El Salvador's Isidro Metapan or Honduras' Real Espaņa.
“It's winner take all, and that's what you want,” left back Todd Dunivant said. “You want to give yourself a chance like that, and we've done that. ... It's not going to be easy, but the other two teams have done it, and we've got to follow in those footsteps.”
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
CARSON -- The Galaxy already has won the Supporters' Shield, is nursing injuries with the playoffs two weeks away, and has a far more important match coming Thursday. Chivas USA's elimination from the playoff race nearly two weeks ago wasn't a surprise.
Nothing that happens Sunday will have any bearing on anything -- injuries aside, but let's not go there -- so the matchup at Home Depot Center might just be the most meaningless of SuperClasico clashes.
Galaxy captain Landon Donovan touched on that this week, noting that once the Shield was in hand, “your mind kind of turns a little bit, and you think, 'OK, those last two games, against Chivas and Houston, don't mean anything.' But as this week comes around, you see [the Chivas] guys in the tunnel -- and I did a [fan] appearance [the other] night, and you can see what it means to all the people, all the fans. It makes you realize this game is still important.
“It doesn't mean anything in the standings for either team, but it's going to be exciting. We don't want to lose to these guys.”
Figure the Galaxy to field as close to a first team as Bruce Arena can, with injuries -- Donovan's included -- having a say in the lineup and roster choices with Thursday's CONCACAF Champions League group finale against Motagua looming.
That's the real priority for the Galaxy, which is off to next year's quarterfinals with a win in Honduras -- and likely done without one.
“Our team is pretty good at being singularly focused,” said Donovan, who is uncertain in his return from a minor quad injury that kept him out of last week's U.S. national team's friendlies. “I'm sure Bruce is thinking ahead, and I'm sure some lineup decisions play into that. For us, it's all about playing on Sunday.
“For me personally, I haven't played in a couple weeks. A couple guys have been off a while. We definitely need some time in a real game to get yourself going and get sharp again” before the Champions League showdown.
“There's no question [which games means the most],” he said. “It's no question if we have to choose a game to win, we'd choose the Motagua game. But I've learned that you can't go into any game cautious or passive, or thinking not to get hurt, or you don't want to wear yourself out, because then bad things can happen. We're going to take this game the right way, we're going to approach it the right way, and once it's Sunday at 8 o'clock, we'll start preparing for Motagua.”
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 -- It wasn't a changing of the guard or anything like that, not with Robbie Keane on the way -- and possibly arriving Thursday or Friday -- but it might have seemed so after Adam Cristman's gutty performance in the Galaxy's CONCACAF Champions League opener.
Cristman netted the first goal, extending fully to knock home a pass from A.J. DeLaGarza in the 13th minute, and probably should have had one or two more as L.A. vaulted atop Group A in the region's club championship with a deserved 2-0 triumph Tuesday night over Honduran champion Motagua at Home Depot Center.
That's nine goals in all this season for Cristman, a big, physical forward who missed the first third of the season while rehabbing from knee surgery and has since slowly built up minutes over a broad collection of competitions.
It's simple to contrast that with Juan Pablo Angel's disappointing output -- just three goals in 22 league games -- especially with the Colombian striker gone to Chivas USA, with an official trade announcement expected Wednesday.
Nobody's going to be that cruel, so as Cristman won kudos from all corners, Angel received accolades from his former teammates and head coach Bruce Arena.
“I would say this about Juan Pablo: He's been a great professional for our team. And he made us a better team. He really did,” said Arena, who brought in the star striker from the New York Red Bulls last December. “I love him as a person and a player. He's a first-class individual. I don't know what more to say. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him.”
Angel trained for the first time Tuesday with Chivas, and Landon Donovan, who added the Galaxy's second against Motagua from David Beckham's cross in the 60th minute, said the regal forward would be missed -- and would make a difference for L.A.'s archrival.
“I know it didn't work out the way he wanted on the field -- he obviously wanted to score a few more goals ...,” Donovan said. “Everybody knows his capabilities and his qualities. For whatever reason, it wasn't working out here. Perhaps the style of play didn't mesh, but I have no doubt he's going to be successful [with Chivas].”
Said defender Gregg Berhalter: “Juan is a first-class guy. He set the standard ... that you work hard, no matter who you are. He worked hard from day one, he had a great attitude from day one, and he was a great teammate.”
Cristman has scored in every kind of competition for L.A. -- one goal in Major League Soccer, one in U.S. Open Cup, two in MLS Reserve League, one in a friendly, three in preseason and now this one.
“He's been great,” Donovan said. “He's reliable, and he's dependable, and you know where he's going to be, you know what kind of effort he's going to give you. He puts himself in some great positions, and he's scored some good goals, and tonight that goal was very important.”
Any doubts about the Mexican Primera Division's supremacy among the region's professional soccer league has been wiped away in CONCACAF's club championship the past decade.
Since the Galaxy in 2000 gave Major League Soccer its second Champions' Cup title in three years, Mexican clubs have won eight of 10 titles -- and six of the finals have been all-Mexico affairs.
That makes picking favorites in the fourth edition since the competition's switch to the current format -- and the CONCACAF Champions League name -- rather simple: defending champ Monterrey, reigning Primera Division titlist Pumas UNAM, Morelia and Santos Laguna.
The group stage begins Tuesday, with 16 clubs spread among four groups battling the next two months for eight quarterfinal berths when the tournament resumes early next year.
Five MLS clubs, the Galaxy included, are in the field, with lowly Toronto FC representing Canada, which has only four fully professional clubs.
Here's a quick look at each group and club:
- GROUP A
Galaxy (USA): L.A. learned a lesson in last year's preliminary-round loss, will wage battle with first-teamers this time around -- Robbie Keane included, once he's eligible.
Alajuelense (Costa Rica): Two-time CONCACAF champs are coming off a title season at home, are solid at the back with Ticos defenders Jose Salvatierra and Jhonny Acosta.
Morelia (Mexico): The Monarcas' summer rebuild has brought in several players with CCL experience, and Miguel Sabah and Rafael Marquez Lugo are a dangerous tandem up top.
Motagua (Honduras): Three former MLSers (Amado Guevara, Ivan Guerrero, Pando Ramirez) and a dozen Honduran national-teamers lead the Honduran champs.
CARSON -- The Galaxy have home games Tuesday night and next week to open their campaign in the CONCACAF Champions League, and there's not a whole lot of margin for error.
To claim one of two Group A berths in next year's quarterfinals in the region's club championship, the Galaxy must maneuver through a terrifically difficult six games over the next two months, and how they start likely will determine how they finish.
“It's not do or die,” defender Todd Dunivant said, “but at the same time, it really makes it a lot easier on us if we can get two wins in the first games. We don't want to be chasing it.”
Not in this group.
The Galaxy opens at Home Depot Center against reigning Honduran champion CD Motagua, which has more than a dozen players with international experience and two -- 2004 Major League Soccer MVP Amado Guevara and defender Sergio Mendoza -- who were in South Africa for last year's World Cup.
Next week brings Alajuelense, the reigning Costa Rican champ. The group's fourth team is Morelia, runner-up in Mexico's Clausura last spring. Is this the CCL's “Group of Death”?
“Seemingly,” Landon Donovan said. “Certainly, when you look at the other groups, you would say there are some weaker teams in the other groups. ... When we see Motagua, when we see Alajuela, when we see Morelia, we know they're three very good teams. It's going to be a difficult group. There's not going to be a lot that separates the four teams.”
The Galaxy is in command of MLS's Supporters' Shield race, and that trophy -- along with the MLS Cup prize, to be awarded Nov. 20 at HDC -- is the club's chief aim this season. Next on the priority list is this tournament, with next year's victor claiming a berth in the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was asked Monday if getting to the Club World Cup was the goal.
“That's down the road,” he said. “But you can't position yourself to be there unless you get out of the group stages. Our first priority in the Champions League is to try to qualify out of group play.”
To do so, L.A. almost certainly will need positive results in the first two matches. They'll play only one of their final four at home -- Sept. 28 against Morelia -- and points are hard to come by in Tegucigalpa, Alajuela and Morelia.
The Galaxy's task in the CONCACAF Champions League got tougher this week: Honduran champion Motagua and Mexican runner-up Morelia joined their group for the tournament's first stage.
The clubs completed as expected preliminary-round romps this week to snare spots in Group A, which looks like this event's “Group of Death.”
Motagua, which will face the Galaxy in a group opener Aug. 16 at Home Depot Center, cruised Thursday night through a 2-0 loss to Guatemala's Municipal, a virtually meaningless match after the Hondurans' 4-0 rout in last week's first leg.
Morelia had it easier, destroying Haitian champ Tempęte over two home legs. The Monarcas won, 5-0, in its official home game last week, then won, 2-0, Wednesday night -- with the Haitians playing their home game in Morelia because CONCACAF ruled that their stadium, damaged in last year's earthquake, did not meet standards.
Costa Rican champ Alajuelense completes the Group A quartet and will make its HDC appearance on Aug. 25. The schedule for the final four group-stage rounds has not been released.
All three MLS clubs in preliminary-round action -- FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC -- qualified for the group stage.
Group play will run through Oct. 20, with the top two in each of four groups advancing to next year's quarterfinals.
Here are the groups:
Alajuelense (Costa Rica)
Colorado Rapids (USA)
Real Espaņa (Honduras)
Santos Laguna (Mexico)
Isidro Metapan (El Salvador)
Pumas UNAM (Mexico)
FC Dallas (USA)
Toronto FC (Canada)
Seattle Sounders (USA)
Herediano (Costa Rica)
L.A. will face the winner of the preliminary-round series between Honduras' Motagua and Guatemala's Municipal on Aug. 16 at Home Depot Center. Game two will be Aug. 25 against Costa Rican powerhouse Alajuelense.
Motagua and Municipal play the first leg of their series Thursday night in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. The second leg is Aug. 4 in Guatemala City.
The Galaxy's focus is on Major League Soccer play at the moment, with a weekend-midweek trek to play the Pacific Northwest's expansion clubs just ahead, but the CONCACAF Champions League looms ahead.
L.A. will begin group play Aug. 16, 17 or 18 -- when, where and against whom to be determined. Theirs could be the toughest group, if Mexican Clausura runner-up Morelia and Honduran power Motagua get through the preliminary round, as expected. (Costa Rica's Alajuelense is the other seeded team in Group A.)
The tournament begins Tuesday with the first of the first legs in the preliminary round, and there's plenty to watch: three MLS clubs (Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Toronto FC), all televised on Fox Soccer Channel; upset kings Puerto Rico Islanders, from the second-division U.S. league; and two Mexican clubs, Santos Laguna along with Morelia, both expected (as with every Mexican club) to at least get through to next spring's semifinals.
The battles Galaxy fans will want to watch most closely begin Thursday, with Morelia home against Haiti's Tempęte and Motagua facing Guatemala's Municipal in Tegucigalpa. Tempęte, its stadium still in post-earthquake rebuild mode, will play its home leg on Aug. 3 at Morelia; Municipal is home in the other series on Aug. 4.