The LA Galaxy forged through to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals Wednesday night, but it didn't come easy and required a late strike to avoid an upset.
Alan Gordon's fourth of the competition, an 83rd-minute strike from a nifty sequence, provided the 1-1 road draw with Trinidad and Tobago's Central FC, clinching LA's fourth CCL group-stage title in five years.
They join D.C. United and Mexico's Queretaro in next year's knockout stage, and their Oct. 21 Group D finale against Comunicaciones in Guatemala City will solely determine seeding.
Central went ahead right at the start, with a superb goal from Trinidad and Tobago national-teamer Willis Plaza, but the Caribbean champions would have been eliminated even had they held on for the victory. The Galaxy's massive goal difference, following a 5-0 rout of the Sharks and a 5-1 romp over Comunicaciones in their home encounters, was going to require an outlandish scoreline or two to overcome.
Gordon's goal, from a Raul Mendiola square ball after nice work from rookie Ignacio Maganto on the right flank, ended a 361-minute goalless streak across all competitions for the Galaxy, who were in danger of being shut out for their fourth straight game.
The victory didn't come without a price. Baggio Husidic, just back from a lengthy calf injury, departed after hurting his left knee in the 13th minute. Mika Väyrynen also left with fatigue, exiting after he was taken down in the 69th minute for Mendiola, who played his first first-team minutes since suffering a concussion in LA's Aug. 6 victory in the group opener against Central.
The Galaxy traveled with only 16 players, leaving their entire first-choice XI in Southern California, and started only three players -- Husidic, Väyrynen and right back Dan Gargan -- with 10 or more MLS starts this season.
LA started poorly, as has become custom in recent weeks, with Central going ahead in the second minute and continuing to outhustle the Galaxy the rest of the half.
Plaza scored from the right side of the box, taking a couple of touches after collecting a Marvin Oliver chip over LA's defense, then beating goalkeeper Brian Rowe to the far post.
The Galaxy struggled to penetrate or create chances, but Väyrynen forced goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams, another T&T international, to make a leaping save in the 26th minute, parrying a 30-yard rocket over the crossbar.
Edson Buddle had a decent chance in the 41st, avoiding two defenders to send a hard shot at Williams, but the Galaxy were fortunate not to fall further behind in stoppage. A Plaza ball left Nicholas Dillon one-on-one with Rowe, but he whiffed on his try, and Rowe got a piece of the second attempt, with the ball ricocheting well away from danger.
Jose Villarreal's first appearance since sustaining a knee injury in a July 11 International Champions Cup friendly against Club America, off the bench in the 58th minute, prompted LA's best soccer of the evening. The Galaxy put heavy pressure on the Sharks much of the second half but legitimate opportunities were hard to come by.
Both teams had chances through the first half-hour or so after the break, but Rowe handled a low Oliver shot in the 61st minute and Plaza fired wide left after Tommy Meyer's attempt to dispossess the forward send him one-on-one when the ball caromed toward the box.
Williams parried another long shot over his bar -- a 26-yard Villarreal free kick in the 69th minute -- then swatted away a near-post Meyer header off the ensuing corner kick.
Gordon struck after the Galaxy worked the ball to Maganto on the right flank, and the Spaniard cut in while retreating to beat two defenders, then slipped the ball into box. Mendiola squared it with his first touch, and Gordon first-timed it to the left side of the net.
The Galaxy are back in action Sunday at StubHub Center in a vital Western Conference showdown with FC Dallas (9:30 pm ET, FS1). Central opens TT Pro League play Saturday at Point Fortin Civic.
Central FC 1 v LA Galaxy 1
Plaza 2 Gordon 82
Central FC - 21.Jan-Michael Williams (capt); 24.Kevon Villaroel, 17.Marcelle François, 12.Jamal Jack, 2.Elton John; 15.Kaydion Gabriel, 10.Marvin Oliver (Yellow 51), 45.Ataullah Guerra (26.Mickaeel Jem Gordon 88th), 14.Nicholas Dillon (Yellow 48) (7.Jason Marcano 52nd), 99.Marcus Joseph (8.Sean de Silva 83rd); 33.Willis Plaza.
Unused Substitutes: 30.Akel Clarke (GK); 5.Akeem Benjamin, 6.Kerry Baptiste, 25.Elijah Manners.
Coach - Ross Russell.
LA Galaxy - 12.Brian Rowe; 33.Dan Gargan, 27.David Romney, 21.Tommy Meyer, 25.Rafael Garcia; 15.Ignacio Maganto, 34.Kenney Walker (Yellow 64), 3.Mika Vayrynen (40.Raul Mendiola 69th), 6.Baggio Husidic (36.Oscar Sorto 15th); 9.Alan Gordon (capt), 16.Edson Buddle (5.Jose Villarreal 58th).
Unused Substitutes: 31.Andrew Wolverton (GK); 2.Todd Dunivant.
Coach: - Bruce Arena.
Referee - William Anderson (Puerto Rico).
Attendance - 5,000.
Venue - Hasely Crawford Stadium.
Late Gordon goal rescues Galaxy to 1-1 draw with Central.
Alan Gordon had the responsibility of shouldering the stardom in absence of LA Galaxy's marquee players and the 33-year-old forward did just that.
Gordon, a United States international, equalised late for the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup champions to earn a 1-1 draw Trinidadian side Central FC to qualify for the quarterfinal stage of the 2015-2016 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), which runs February 23, 2016 – March 01, 2016, with a game – at Guatemala’s Comunicaciones on October 21 – in hand.
Galaxy (7 points, 2-1-0) sealed the top spot of Group D, while the debuting campaign of second placed Central (4 points, 1-1-2) came to an end. Comunicaciones (3 points, 1-0-2) currently occupy bottom.
Central, who were defeated 5-1 at Galaxy in the first-leg, led 1-0 from as early as second minute of play when Trinidad and Tobago international, Willis Plaza, hammered a precise strike into the bottom far corner of goalkeeper Brian Rowe’s net after collecting a Marvin Oliver pass just inside the right of the box.
The Digicel Pro League and Caribbean champions had an excellent opportunity to take a two-goal cushion into the dressing room at the break, however 18-year-old attacker, Nicholas Dillion, flopped in the six yard area, with two unsuccessful swings of the leg, as Rowe stood at his mercy following a ball over the top by Plaza.
“I know he (Dillon) missed an easy chance but he was nervous,” said Central head coach Ross Russell. “It was a big game for him. I can’t [chastise] him for it. He played well for us.”
But after eighty minutes of battling and failing to beat Central and T&T number one Jan-Michael Williams from set pieces, Galaxy finally pegged the equalising goal in the 82nd minute.
Second half substitute Jose Villarreal had injected renewed life in Galaxy, and it was off the 22-year-old midfielder’s move then pass from the right, that Gordon, who scored in the first-leg, found the back of Williams net.
“I am disappointed because we played well,” said the Central FC goalkeeper and captain, who had produced superb saves in the 26th and 69th minutes to put behind free-kick strikes by Mika Vayrynen and Villarreal, respectively.
“We got the early goal and I think we could have held on for the win.”
Williams, who was also brilliant during his team’s 1-0 win over Comunicaciones a week ago at the same venue, continued, “The high point for us (in the CCL), is that we didn’t lose a home game. But (the low point is that) we didn’t prepare well on and off the field from the beginning. We could have done better against Galaxy (even in the first-leg).”
Williams believes the introduction of a Caribbean professional league will help raise the standards of regional clubs against the powerhouses of North and Central America. He also said that the current domestic league dates puts Trinidadian clubs at a disadvantage being out of season when the CCL kicks in.
Delighted by the result, Russell told reporters, “My team answered the bell. They answered the call. We are happy that we could come back and get the result we got. First team or not, that’s LA Galaxy we played."
Plaza, who caused a mounted camera some problems in the 72 minute when his powerful left-footed strike flew overbar, had an excellent opportunity to restore the “Couva Sharks” lead in the 85th minute but, after being one of the top players on the night, dragged his effort wide of the far netting after collecting an Oliver pass and powering past two Galaxy defenders to enter the box.
In the end it was a point for each side as both coaches had reason to cheer.
Russell blamed a lapse in concentration for allowing the visitors find the equalising goal but said he can't point any blame because his side were playing against a one of the confederation's top sides, LA Galaxy.
With Sunday’s MLS match against FC Dallas in mind and a heated campaign to win the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield, Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena had left home his "first eleven", which includes Ireland and former Tottenham forward Robbie Keane, former England and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, former Barcelona forward Giovani Dos Santos of Mexico and Brazilian midfielder Juninho, to the disappointment of many Trinidadians who turned out at the Port of Spain venue.
However Russell thanked the turnout, adding, “Thanks to the support from Trinidad. We know it’s because of LA Galaxy (that they turned up) because this is not what we usually get in the Pro League.”
Meanwhile Arena defended his decision to leave behind his stars and even traveling with just five substitutes on Wednesday night.
“We had enough,” said the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach. “We gave our younger players a chance. We have a game on the weekend and we had a lot of travel for this game. We were aware that we could have got ourselves in trouble. (But) the issue was to qualify out of the group and we did just that.
“It was an exciting game. Central were dangerous on the break… good defending their lead. We were just fortunate to get back in the game.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first couple minutes of the game but I was proud of the team in the way they fought back in the second half, created some good chances.
“We got the point we needed anyway. We won the group. We would have like the three (points) but anytime you go on the road, these matches are difficult and it was a good experience for some of our young players as well. It’s nice to know we are (still) in the competition next year.”
Arena voted goalkeeper Williams as his “player of the game” and also had high praise for Willis Plaza, Ataulla Guerra, 40-year-old veteran Marvin Oliver, while applauding the general effort of Central.
Central will now turn their focus on their domestic league defence. The “Couva Sharks” must travel to face Point Fortin Civic from 6 pm at the Mahaica Oval on Saturday on their start of the 2015-2016 Digicel Pro League (DPL).
In other weekend DPL fixtures, Defence Force will kick things off against St. Ann’s Rangers from 6 pm at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on Friday.
On Saturday W Connection will host Police FC from 4 pm at the Manny Ramjohn Stadium and simultaneously at the Larry Gomes Stadium, North East Stars will welcome debutants Club Sando.
Round One Match Day One will culminate on Sunday at the Hasely Crawford Stadium when neighbouring rivals Morvant Caledonia United and San Juan Jabloteh meet from 4 pm.