Tijuana is not the first place you think of as a suitable venue for a sobering night, but the LA Galaxy endured just such an evening in the Estadio Caliente — exiting the Concacaf Champions League at the quarter final stage, at the hands of a spirited Tijuana team. The Xolos put three past a shell-shocked Galaxy in the opening half, and despite a second half rally by the MLS side that set up a tense finale, went on to win 4-2 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate.
LA had come to Tijuana with the slimmest of leads, and after the end of the first leg there had been a nagging sense that their failure to build on Samuel’s early goal at the StubHub Center against a Tijuana team poor on the road, but formidable at home, would come back to haunt them.
The Galaxy had their lead turned on its head within minutes of the start of the second leg, as the Xolos immediately made good on their pre-game promise to exploit what they saw as weaknesses in the Galaxy backline, during a storming start to the game by the home side.
Less than a minute had elapsed when Jaimen Ayovi lost James Riley on a ball over the top and drove a low cross through the Galaxy area. LA failed to clear their lines and Ayovi, following in from the right, tucked the loose ball under Jaime Penedo at point blank range.
With the lively crowd stirred up further by the early strike, a shaken Galaxy tried to settle, only for Ayovi to rattle the crossbar in the 5th minute, when left in far too much space in the box.
Ayovi wouldn’t have long to wait for his second though. Penedo looked to be favorite to reach a long pass out of midfield in the 9th minute, only for the bounce on the artificial turf to kill the momentum of the ball and leave him stranded on the edge of the box, as Ayovi touched the ball past him, then passed it into the net for the aggregate lead.
It threatened to get worse for the Galaxy when Greg Garza’s 22nd minute dipping shot clipped the crossbar with Penedo well beaten. Then it did get worse. LA continued to struggle to read the bounce of the turf and in the 28th minute they were punished again for it. Again, Leonardo looked favorite to head the ball clear in his own half, but the spin back off the turf saw him misjudge it, and Dario Benedetto raced free into the box, to coolly finish across Penedo.
The Galaxy now needed to score twice to advance on away goals. They got a glimpse of one in the 39th minute when Samuel bundled his way in from the byline and drove a ball across goal, only for the deflected ball to be driven straight at Saucedo by Marcelo Sarvas. And while the Galaxy saw more of the ball in the last few minutes of the half, that was their best chance of the stanza.
LA weren’t done though. Riley was hauled off for Todd Dunivant at half-time, as Bruce Arena tried to bring some sense of familiarity to a back line much changed since the 2012 MLS Cup-winning team that had earned LA their place in this competition. But it was a collection of familiar faces up front who would have the next significant impact for LA. In the 47th minute the Galaxy’s designated players combined to give their side a lifeline, when Landon Donovan’s free kick to the back post was headed back across goal by Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane raced to the back post to touch home.
Spurred on, the Galaxy began to press more, without making many clear chances, and always looking vulnerable to Tijuana’s incisiveness on the counter. A single goal aggregate lead when your opponents hold the away goal balance is a tricky situation, and for a period the Xolos looked more cautious in the wake of the Galaxy goal.
LA couldn’t make their pressure count however, and Tijuana must have thought they’d killed the game.in the 81st minute, when an aerial tussle outside the Galaxy box saw the ball fall nicely to Richard Ruiz on the right, and he drove a low shot across Penedo and into the corner for 4-1 on the night.
Still LA came back. In the 84th minute Keane narrowed the gap again to set up a grandstand finish — ending an incisive Galaxy break by stroking home a perfectly weighted slipped pass from Donovan.
The game was end to end now. It was almost possible to miss the entrance of Herculez Gomez, sent on to try and extend his uncanny run of heaping misery onto MLS sides in this competition. He entered a field where LA were pushing frantically for a decisive away goal as the board went up for five added minutes.
Gomez himself wouldn’t make a decisive impact. He didn’t need to. One last frantic ball into the Tijuana box was booted clear and that was that. The Xolos have been gathering a lot of support in Southern California — the Galaxy’s presumptive catchment area. Now they hold bragging rights there.