The Galaxy came out of the two-week MLS international break Saturday riding their worst winless streak in three seasons. And while it took two months of poor play and bad luck to put that slide together, veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan predicted a single bolt of lightning could turn that all around.
Kljestan provided that moment, converting a penalty kick two minutes into stoppage time to give the Galaxy a vital 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers at Dignity Health Sports Park.
“It’s really nice to have some music blasting in the locker room again after a game,” he said. “I think everyone’s a bit relieved. It is a big exhale for everybody and now hopefully it’s the start of a winning streak or an unbeaten run.”
The win snapped a nine-game winless streak and kept the Galaxy sixth in the Western Conference table, two places and five points above the line to qualify for next month’s MLS playoffs. And just as Kljestan said, it all turned on one big play, with Efraín Álvarez — who entered the game with Kljestan as a second-half substitute — making a zig-zagging run through the box that forced defender Josecarlos Van Rankin into a poor tackle, toppling Álvarez and drawing a foul.
Kljestan then stepped up and drilled the ball past Portland keeper Steve Clark, who guessed correctly and dove the right way but wasn’t quick enough to catch up to the hard, right-footed shot that went into the left corner of the goal.
“It didn’t matter if it was an own goal or if it was a ball into the upper corner from 30 yards. It’s just the ball got in the back of the net,” Kljestan said. “We were able to celebrate with our fans and get three points again, keep the teams behind us behind us and keep up with the other teams around us who also all won tonight.
“Hopefully it builds some momentum for us moving forward.”
Kljestan started the day helping coach a Galaxy academy team to a draw.
“I’m unbeaten as a manager,” he joked.
Part of his contribution for that assignment was giving a pregame speech in which he talked about how scoring a goal was the most enjoyable thing to do in soccer. He then demonstrated what he meant after his penalty kick.
“I told the boys this morning when you score a goal, go and celebrate and celebrate together and really enjoy the entire moment,” he said. “So I went a little crazy after I scored tonight. I wanted to jump up in the crowd but I quickly remembered that I had a yellow card already and I didn’t want to get sent off.”
The Galaxy (12-11-6) had been frustrated for more than an hour by Clark before a misplay by defender Larry Mabiala opened the door for Javier “Chicharito” Hernández to get his team on the scoreboard in the 62nd minute.
Mabiala was perfectly positioned to intercept a cross from Víctor Vázquez but whiffed on the play, allowing the pass to bounce through his legs to Hernández, who deflected it in at the far post for his team-leading 13th goal of the season. That was a good omen since the Galaxy were 10-2-2 when they score first — something they hadn’t done in their last six games, none of which they won.
Sebastián Blanco, given acres of space on the right wing, matched that for Portland (14-11-4) about 10 minutes later, chipping a left-footed shot over Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond and off the far post. Blanco nearly put Portland ahead in the 86th minute, but his right-footed shot from distance bounced off the left post, opening the way for Kljestan, who had come on 15 minutes earlier.
The Galaxy dominated the opening 45 minutes, holding the ball for nearly a half-hour and outshooting the sloppy Timbers 11-2. But they had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
The frustration continued early in the second half, with Clark making a pair of good stops on Kévin Cabral seconds apart. Minutes later Hernández blew a great opportunity from the center of the box by sending his right-footed shot right at Clark, who gathered it in for the sixth of his seven saves on the night.
Hernández eventually made up for that with his goal before Kljestan scored the winner. For coach Greg Vanney, there is no margin for error with five games left in the season.
“We needed this result tonight because the other teams around us picked up points as well, so it was a really important three points tonight,” he said. “I do feel like, from the group, there was a confidence building.
“I hope the group feels like there’s a shift in momentum here, that we got over the hump and now we have a real opportunity in the coming weeks to try to take more points and try to get ourselves in a better and better position down the stretch.”
Attendance was announced at 15,322 based on tickets distributed, but the number of people inside the stadium was significantly lower, in part because of an L.A. County mandate requiring fans to show proof of a vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.