By MARK EDWARD HORNISH
CARSON, Calif.– Judging by crowd noise, it seemed at kickoff that it was Club Tijuana, not the Los Angeles Galaxy, that enjoyed the home field advantage in this first leg of Wednesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match.
The Galaxy changed that in the 11th minute when a Marcelo Sarvas long ball fooled the Xolos back line and sprung Robbie Keane loose in the penalty area. Keane failed attempt to control the ball with his chest quickly turned into a fortunate pass as an onrushing Samuel raced in and slammed the ball home from the penalty spot to give the Galaxy a surprise early lead.
Jaime Penedo helped that goal stand up as the Galaxy held on to a 1-0 victory at Stub Hub Center, setting up what should be a tightly-contested second leg in Tijuana on Tuesday.
“Winning at home is important. Getting a clean sheet is very important,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said after the match. “We’re not in a great position, but we’re in a good position for the match on Tuesday.”
The match was a fairly even match that saw the Galaxy get the better of the play in the first half while Club Tijuana took control in the second half. The Xolos showed quality from the opening whistle, moving the ball well up the flanks. The Galaxy were content to stay compact, and the strategy worked, as the Xolos struggled to connect the final pass and test Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo. All three Club Tijuana first-half shots came from distance, and went well wide of the mark.
At the other end of the field, the Galaxy buzzed around, and produced the same flurry of chances Real Salt Lake witnessed in the MLS season opener four nights previous. Landon Donovan was lively and pressured the Tijuana back line with a pair of runs into the box, one of which forced a corner, the second of which opened space for Marcelo Sarvas to attempt a shot from distance that he skied into the seats.
In the 41st minute, a bad turnover by Tijuana defender Juan Carlos Nuñez gave the ball to Keane, who had a momentary free look at goal but couldn’t get his shot off. Two minutes later it was Keane again, this time winding around Tijuana’s left side to attempt a cheeky chip on Cirilo Saucedo. The shot cleared the keeper’s mitts but dropped just behind the crossbar on top of the net.
The second half saw a different Tijuana side. The Xolos applied increasing pressure on the Galaxy goal, but were undone by a series of offside calls, as well as some spectacular play from LA goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Twice Penedo made impressive saves, only to see the shots waved off for offside. But in the 57th minute Penedo came up big again and kept Tijuana off the score sheet with a spectacular leaping save to push a deflected Cristian Pellerano laser over the cross bar.
The biggest gasp inducing moment of the night came in the 62nd minute when substitute Dario Benedetto whipped in a cross from the right corner. The ball deflected off Leonardo, spun wildly, and crossed up Penedo, who attempted to bat the ball out rather than catch it. The ball dropped onto Omar Gonzalez’ foot; Gonzalez tapped the ball back only to see that Penedo was off his line. Penedo raced back into his own net to clear the ball off the line and preserve his clean sheet.
“I saw Omar’s face, it was pretty comical,” said Penedo after the match. “I have to admit, I can’t calculate how the ball is going to bounce…it’s just reaction that I’m able to be there.”
Penedo was not the only Galaxy player with a game-saving save on the night. Moments later Javier Gandolfi’s header in the box found it’s way past Penedo, only to find Sarvas parked on the goal frame for a clearance from his knees.
Herculez Gomez came off the bench in the second half, and quickly began putting pressure on the Galaxy defense, but he never could add to his impressive goal-scoring totals in CONCACAF Champions League play. His sharp low header in the 85th missed wide, and it would be the final shot the Xolos mounted on the night.
“I’m by no means happy with the result,” Gomez said after the match. “I think the mental lapses killed us.”
The evening also featured a solid performance from American midfielder Joe Corona, who has made the most of returning to full health by flashing the skills that made him a U.S. Men’s National Team regular a year ago.
The Galaxy are all too familiar with taking a lead into Mexico and coming home empty-handed, as they did in last year’s Champions League semi-final. Now the Galaxy will head to Tijuana with a one-goal cushion, which may not be enough against a Xolos team known for being much stronger at home.