For 82 minutes it looked like job done for the LA Galaxy, as they held a 1-0 lead over the two-time defending champions Monterrey. If their missed chances nagged at them a little, they could still anticipate going to Mexico in the knowledge that a goal of their own would put the champions in all sorts of trouble. Instead, a typical last 10 minutes from a side who specialize in late comebacks left the Galaxy 2-1 losers and knowing they must now score at least twice in the return.
The game had started cagily as Monterrey seemed to play a classic road game, looking for opportunities to work on the counter, though not perhaps as full-bloodedly as Santos had looked to do the previous night in Seattle. Perhaps it was a mark of the respect they had for a lively Galaxy attack, for whom Robbie Keane was the fulcrum – looking to turn for goal at every opportunity and spreading the ball wide with neat first touches when no immediate opportunity presented itself. Or perhaps Monterrey were just biding their time.
LA drew first blood, just before the half-hour. Taking a quick throw after Monterrey had tried to break down the right, the ball reached the impressive young Jose Villareal, who battled and twisted his way into the box before touching the ball back for Keane. Keane's deft chip found Mike Magee at the back post and his cushioned header was flicked home by the arriving AJ DeLaGarza, finishing a great team move with a perfectly timed run into the box.
Teams are notoriously vulnerable immediately after scoring and Monterrey are past masters at picking their moment. They tried to hit straight back and were almost rewarded. Just two minutes after the goal, the next significant move saw Humberto Suazo break free down the left and almost create an equalizer with a tempting cross across the box that just needed a touch. Then the resulting corner bounced around the six-yard box, before Hiram Mier arrived at the back post to smash a shot that skewed wide off his team-mate Walter Ayovi at the far post.
Having absorbed the counter-punch, LA tried to press home their slight advantage and were within inches of increasing their lead twice just before half-time, most notably through Sean Franklin failing to convert a point-blank chance after good work from Keane set him up. They would come to rue that miss, and others on what was ultimately a frustrating night.
Sure enough, Monterrey reshuffled their pack at half-time and came out the stronger in the second half. Suazo forced Carlo Cudicini into the first of a series of saves with a fierce low shot, as the Monterrey man began to exert his own influence on the game. With Cesar Delgado now on the field for Mier and Avoyi moved inside, LA were being overwhelmed in the center of the field and Keane's supply was cut off.
Somehow they held out until an unintended substitution of Michael Stephens for the injured Juninho on the hour and the introduction of Landon Donovan a few minutes later turned the tide a little. Donovan even had a chance for a dream start when his first-time shot from the edge of the box squirmed just past the post, and moments later the Galaxy had their last and perhaps easiest chance of the night as Magee slid a low cross across goal for Keane to touch home, only for the goalkeeper, Juan de Dios Ibarra, to somehow get a firm enough hand on the ball to divert it round the post, much to Keane's disbelief.
That was as good as it got for the Galaxy, though their steady refusal not to rush approach play looked briefly as if it might be enough to help run down the clock. But with Jesus Corona and Delgado thrown on the field to give Monterrey an attack-minded line up for the last 15 minutes, there was always likely to be another test and so it proved.
First the lively Delgado's ball from the right found Aldo De Nigris getting in behind Leonardo to head it hard and low at Cudicini. The keeper could only block the ball and Suazo, the visitors' all-time leading CCL goalscorer, was there to scramble the rebound home inside the six-yard box. The game now got fractious as a frustrated Galaxy were pulled back repeatedly for fouls their opponents seemed happy to draw, and it seemed as if the visitors were settling for the single road goal.
But the champions weren't done. In the 90th minute Cudicini was in action again, forced to desperately claw a loose ball in the box clear, only to be beaten a minute later as a ball nodded into the path of De Nigris was controlled and touched past the keeper from the penalty spot to give Monterrey the win.
MLS teams have got road results at Monterrey, most memorably Real Salt Lake in the first leg of their final there, when they came away with a 2-2 scoreline. The loss of Juninho to injury and the temporary marginalization of Keane undoubtedly affected the Galaxy, who will feel that when they regroup they can get goals against Monterrey. But with eight minutes to go, a 0-0 in Mexico would have taken them through. They now need to score two. After the first legs of these semi-finals, it's advantage Mexico.
Cudicini; Dunivant, Leonardo, Gonzalez, DeLAGarza; Magee, Juninho (Stephens), Sarvas, Franklin; Keane, Villareal (Donovan)
Ibarra; Chavez, Basanta, Mier (Delgado), Osorio; Zavala, Meza; Cardozo (Corona), Suazo, Ayovi (Madrigal); De Nigris