LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Following Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup, the Blues staff and players tried to focus on their strong performance rather than their disappointment as they looked ahead to back-to-back road games against the Charleston Battery and the Wilmington Hammerheads this coming Friday and Saturday. Despite leading the Galaxy 1-0 in the second half Tuesday, the Blues were unable to hold on for the win, the Galaxy scoring twice on two separate set plays to come out on top.
“There’s no shame in losing to the best team in MLS, but when you get a lead and you think you might be able to hold it, it’s still disappointing,” Blues Head Coach Charlie Naimo said. “I feel like we could have done a little bit better job of keeping things tight and saying, ‘Hey, let’s bunker in now. Let’s move our feet. Let’s do everything a little bit sharper and smarter.’ Instead, we had to commit some fouls as a result of being too lax and losing our concentration after we scored.
“Overall, I’m not unhappy, though. The boys gave it all they had and I’m very proud of them. Perhaps we also played enough attractive soccer to earn a few fans. I hope that when we’re not playing the Galaxy, their fans will become Blues supporters.”
The USL PRO club’s performance in the match would warrant it, according to Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena.
“The first half was pretty even and the Blues really came after us,” he offered. “They played very well in the entire match and put outstanding pressure on us. It was obvious that they have a good group of players with a lot of experience. I thought Tudela played very well in the game and it also showed that Chijindu is an experienced MLS player. Obviously, I knew about Mike Randolph’s quality from his days with the Galaxy.
“I thought we played really well in the second half, despite going down a goal,” Arena continued. “We responded well and had two goals in us, but give the Blues a lot of credit for making the game so difficult for us.”
One of the Blues players with a very strong showing on the night was defender Nelson Akwari, a former MLS player for the MetroStars, Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake.
“I think we had a strong performance against the Galaxy,” Akwari commented. “We tried to play an attractive style as much as we could. They had a lot of first-team players out there and they showed their composure. We defended well from the run of play, but unfortunately we gave up two goals on free-kicks. That’s very disappointing.”
Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez played a key role in both of his side’s tallies, as he headed home a Juninho free-kick in the 75th minute before assisting on Mike Magee’s game-winner six minutes later. In his postgame analysis, Charlie Naimo emphasized the fact that it took the MLS side two set plays to turn the match around, while also lamenting the 40th minute injury to his defender Cameron Dunn.
“The guys really battled for ninety minutes,” the Blues Head Coach said. “We scored a goal from the run of play and created a few more good chances. As far as chances from the run of play go, I felt like the match was pretty even. The Galaxy had more of the ball and came after us in the second half especially, but it still took them two set-play goals to beat us. Cam was the guy who we were hoping would take care of Gonzalez for us. After he went down, we were kind of holding our breath on every set play. Sure enough, he turned out to be the golden goose for them.”
Nelson Akwari was sure to acknowledge the performance by the tall Galaxy center back.
“Omar has done a good job scoring goals in MLS,” the 29-year-old offered. “We knew he’s a threat on set pieces, so we just always tried to get a body on him and win the second balls and knock-downs. Unfortunately for us, he did very well to score the first goal and pick up the assist on the second.”
Gonzalez’ equalizer was preceded by a goalkeeping error by the Blues’ Oscar Dautt, as the 35-year-old misjudged Juninho’s in-swinger as he came sprinting off his line in an attempt to punch the ball clear and was beaten to it by the head of the Galaxy defender. However, Charlie Naimo refused to put too much emphasis on the play but instead focused on Dautt’s key saves in the U.S. Open Cup, including a point-blank reaction stop to deny Jovan Kirovski in the 41st minute of Tuesday’s match.
“Maybe the decision could have been a little bit better on the goal, but Oscar made a lot of great saves throughout the tournament to help get us where we were,” Naimo said. “If it wasn’t for him, we would never have had the lead in the first place but would have conceded a goal in the first half. In addition, the free-kick that led to Gonzalez’ goal was preceded by a foul that we probably could have avoided, so it was unfortunate that Oscar was put in such a difficult position.”
Nelson Akwari, who started numerous matches for MLS sides Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake between 2004 and 2006, couldn’t help but crack a smile after the final whistle, despite the disappointing result.
“I definitely enjoyed playing against those guys, and it felt good to see that I can still perform at that level,” the defender said. “They’re at the top of MLS for a reason. There’s no doubt that they have a ton of quality and composure. Every time you get the chance to play against a team like that, it’s a lot of fun.”
Blues captain Josh Tudela, who played for the Galaxy from 2007 to 2009, was visibly disappointed following Tuesday’s loss but stressed the importance of moving on and focusing on the upcoming matches at Charleston and Wilmington.
“I’m very happy with our performance, but also very disappointed with the result since we had it right where we wanted it, at 1-0 with about 15 minutes left,” the midfielder said. “Unfortunately, we ended up giving up two goals on set plays. It never feels good to have the game in your hand and let it slip away, but the guys fought hard and I’m very proud of them. Now we have two big games coming up against Charleston and Wilmington. We really need to get some points from those.”
Friday’s task will not be an easy one for the Blues, as the Charleston Battery is a traditional USL powerhouse desperate for points following a subpar 2011 so far. Meanwhile, Saturday’s opponent, the Wilmington Hammerheads, lost to the Battery 2-0 a week ago but registered an impressive result back on June 18 when it tied high-flying Orlando City 1-1 on the road.
While the Charleston roster boasts plenty of talent and experience, including Battery points, assists and goals leader Nicholas Paterson, Wilmington banks on the continued production of its points and goals leader Luke Mulholland.
Charlie Naimo concluded his remarks by stressing the importance of the two upcoming matches to get his side heading in the right direction for its busy schedule in July and August.
“At this point, we have to get ready for two hard games and focus on the league standings,” the Blues Head Coach said. “Now I can really say that all I care about is USL PRO. That’s our league and that’s where we have to do well. We need to get a few guys healthy and get (recently acquired forward) Peter Byers cleared, and then we’re also hoping to add a couple more quality players to the roster. Those are the things we need to focus on right now.”