The Galaxy held their annual fan appreciation night Saturday, rewarding a sellout crowd announced at 26,674 by giving away autographed soccer balls, concert tickets and LED brackets.
What the fans at Dignity Health Sports Park really wanted, however, was a playoff berth, and they got that too with the Galaxy rallying for a 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake, giving them the point they needed to clinch their second postseason berth in six seasons.
The result also lifts the Galaxy (13-12-8) to fourth place in the Western Conference standings, ahead of Nashville on a tiebreaker, with one game to play. If the Galaxy stay in the top four, they will host a playoff game for the first time since 2016.
The Real Salt Lake goal came on a first-half header from Sergio Córdova, while Douglas Costa got the Galaxy’s score on a penalty kick in the 68th minute.
Precedent was not on the Galaxy’s side coming in.
In the last decade, the Galaxy have won just once on fan appreciation day. Last season, needing a win on the final day of the regular season, they could manage only a draw and missed the postseason on a tiebreaker. Three years before that, they blew a 2-0 halftime lead and lost, finishing a point out of the playoffs.
The team that went in the Galaxy’s place both times? Real Salt Lake.
The Galaxy were in control of their own destiny again, but history would not repeat this time — although it was close there for a while with Córdova’s awkward header in the 26th minute giving RSL a lead it would protect for more than 40 minutes.
The fact the Galaxy were even in the playoff conversation with two games to go can be credited to a late-season surge that has seen the Galaxy lose just once in their last 10 games. Credit for that goes to midfielders Gastón Brugman and Riqui Puig, who were acquired from European teams — Brugman from Parma, Puig from Barcelona — during the summer transfer window.
The additions also rejuvenated forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. The Galaxy captain has scored seven of his team-high 17 goals in the nine games in which Brugman and Puig have both appeared, triggering a $6-million contract option that will keep him with the team through next season.
Brugman, Puig and Hernández didn’t just save the season, though. They might have saved the Galaxy’s front office as well.
On the day Puig made his debut, the team had a losing record, had lost five of its last seven games and was fading from the playoff race. To register their displeasure, a group of Galaxy supporters paid to have a banner flown over the stadium calling for the sacking of President Chris Klein and technical director Jovan Kirovski, who were instrumental in recruiting and signing Brugman and Puig.
Puig was once again everywhere at once Saturday, setting up Julian Araujo for a shot on goal that RSL keeper Zac MacMath stopped with his right foot in the ninth minute, then going down at the top of the box under a challenge from midfielder Scott Caldwell six minutes later to draw a penalty. But MacMath guessed correctly on that shot too, diving to his left and batting Puig’s try from the spot down with both hands.
Córdova scored for RSL (11-11-11) shortly afterward, leaning back to head in a cross from Aaron Herrera, a goal the Galaxy eventually matched on Costa’s penalty kick. Puig was involved in setting that up too, threading a perfect pass through three defenders to Hernández, sprinting into the box. RSL’s Marcelo Silva, beaten on the play, tripped Hernández from behind, but referee Kevin Stott originally waved off the penalty.
Hernández wisely stayed down, though, stopping play while he was attended by the trainers. That gave Stott time to check a video replay and award the penalty, the 14th the Galaxy have won this season, most in MLS.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.