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Mar 9, 2006

Galaxy let Saprissa off the hook

In the end, it's not a surprise that the Los Angeles Galaxy were dumped out of the CONCACAF Champions Cup by titleholders Deportivo Saprissa. After all, the list of obstacles the Galaxy faced heading into the competition was longer than Paris Hilton's credit card statement. Still, the manner of their 3-2 defeat in extra time definitely had its share of astonishing aspects.

The first shocker was not just the near perfection with which the Galaxy played the first half but also the complete lack of urgency showed by Saprissa. The conventional wisdom before the match stated that the vociferous Costa Rican crowd would turn the Galaxy's legs to jello and that, with Saprissa's star players well rested, the hosts would run out easy winners. That was especially true since the Galaxy were just six weeks into their preseason and injuries to the likes of Todd Dunivant, Paulo Nagamura and Ned Grabavoy meant Los Angeles would be traveling to San Jose shorthanded.

But despite the somewhat depleted nature of their lineup, the visitors were the more composed side, and by halftime, they were deservedly two goals up.

Relative unknown Josh Gardner was at the forefront of the Galaxy attack. He scored L.A.'s opener after 18 minutes with a well-taken shot from just inside the penalty area. Then, just four minutes before halftime, Gardner left Saprissa defender Reynaldo Parks in his wake and his cross allowed Landon Donovan to stab home the Galaxy's second goal.

Defensively, the L.A. back line was holding firm, and coach Steve Sampson looked as though he was well on his way to silencing yet another set of critics, especially those of the Costa Rican variety.

Meanwhile, the home side was devoid of inspiration. Saprissa coach Hernan Medford had the look of a man who wished he could sub all eleven players. And the veritable "Purple Monster" that is the Saprissa crowd was looking more like Barney with each passing minute.

But if the first half was notable for its surprises, the second half was no different. As well as the Galaxy had played the first 45 minutes, the speed and manner in which L.A. ceded its advantage was startling. It took only 12 second-half minutes for Saprissa to draw level, and although it's tempting to conclude that a lack of fitness was to blame, it's worth noting that it wasn't the Galaxy's legs that let them down; it was their brains.

How else can you explain Walter Centeno ghosting in, completely unmarked, to nod home Alonso Solis' free kick just a minute into the second half? And the ease with which Solis latched on to Gabriel Badilla's long pass to score the equalizer 10 minutes later showed that rookie left back Nathan Sturgis had relaxed at exactly the wrong time.

These weren't the only lapses in concentration, and their happening so soon after halftime calls into question the team's attitude to start the second half. At the least, a little bit more paranoia was needed. The Galaxy's poor concentration not only enabled Saprissa to tie the match but also allowed the previously subdued crowd to come back at full roar. It made Saprissa feel as though they were running downhill while the Galaxy were climbing Everest.

It all served to set up perhaps the most predictable moment of the evening, when Saprissa defender Parks headed home yet another set piece for the winner, just four minutes into extra time.

The Galaxy, mostly through the efforts of Donovan, did their best to climb back into the match. Unfortunately, the midfield, which had been so dominant during the first half, all but disappeared in the second. As a result, Los Angeles was reduced to just a few half chances.

Although the Galaxy's elimination from the CCC no doubt will linger in their memory, using it as a predictor for their league form seems a risky proposition. At first glance, the team seems to have less depth than last year's edition, although the lengthy injury list probably makes this more of an issue now than it otherwise might be.

One positive development is the emergence of Gardner, which gives Sampson another option on the left side of midfield. But the Galaxy head coach has to be concerned with how dependent this team is on Donovan for goals. Cobi Jones looks to be slowing down. Neither Peter Vagenas nor Marcelo Saragosa poses any kind of offensive threat. It begs the question: Where will the goals come from when Donovan leaves for World Cup duty? Somehow, I sense that a front line of Herculez Gomez and Alan Gordon isn't one that will strike a lot of fear into opposition defenses.

On a broader scale, the Galaxy's defeat in the CCC -- along with that of fellow MLS Cup finalist New England -- also raises the question of what it will take for MLS sides to succeed in this competition. The CCC often is derided because many of the participants don't field their best squads. But until MLS sides begin beating such teams, that doesn't seem likely to change. And given the respective calendars of the other leagues in the region, the timing of the event isn't likely to be modified either.

Which only leaves one solution: Bring back the players in early January, so they can get in better shape. It's something that will require the blessing of the union, and having the players agree to cut short their offseason would qualify as the Mother of All Surprises.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com