The last time the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers met, one was the odds-on MLS Cup favorite and the other was fighting just to get into the playoffs. Now they meet six months later, but the Galaxy are not defending MLS Cup champions like expected. They flamed out in the knockout stages. Instead, the Timbers walked away with the trophy, and the 180 degree turn that both teams took started when they squared off at the StubHub Center last October.
LA entered October 18, 2015 coming off of a win against FC Dallas and a draw at the Seattle Sounders. They looked good in both. Vulnerable, sure, but every MLS team is vulnerable. And with a team featuring Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Gyasi Zardes and Sebastian Lletget, most figured that no team could match them goal-for-goal. So the Galaxy would concede a couple; that wasn’t a problem with their attack.
When Keane scored after 36 minutes and the Galaxy generally bossed play through the first half, it looked like business as usual.
The Timbers needed a result to make the playoffs, but it wasn’t going to come against the Galaxy. Certainly not in L.A. They were a nice team and had taken a step forward by getting into the playoff race a year after missing the postseason, but they were too flawed. Darlington Nagbe still wasn’t the dominant player people expected him to be, goals were hard to come by at times and the defense could be exposed.
Then Fanendo Adi scored in the 65th minute. He knocked home a penalty three minutes later. Finally, Diego Chara scored and in an eight-minute span, the Timbers had gone from 1-0 down to 3-1 up. Robbie Keane got a second goal to bring the Galaxy within one, but late goals by Nagbe and Max Urriti sealed a spectacular second half comeback that, in retrospect, changed the course of the MLS season and pursuit of MLS Cup.
At halftime, nobody would have called the Galaxy a great defensive team, but giving up five goals in a half looked unfathomable. Only the Timbers showed it was much more than just LA’s backline. Steven Gerrard watched the match go by him, unable to run and keep up with the pace. Juninho couldn’t cover the center of the park solo and the attacking band of four didn’t track back enough. That put extreme strain on the back four and Omar Gonzalez wasn’t up to playing the role of hero like he had in past years.
From that point on, the way at the Galaxy was clear: run at them. Run at them for 90 minutes, pick up the pace and make them play both ways. LA would try to keep the ball and hide their problems with possession, but they weren’t good enough to completely kill attacks that way and when the pace picked up, the match would get away from them. Possession would disappear and everything would fall apart.
No longer were the Galaxy infallible. A team that had been called the most talented in MLS history were torn apart.
The Timbers took off from that match on. It’s impossible to overstate how much of a confidence boost it was to beat the Galaxy last October, and to do it the way Portland did was an affirmation of everything they did that entire half. They completely bought into their system and Adi became a goal machine. Nagbe, aided by a move from the wing to the center, was suddenly the creative force the Timbers has been waiting for him to be. And with the front six causing so many problems with their smart defending and pressure up the patch, Portland looked more assured at the back than ever before.
From October 18 on, the Galaxy did not win another match.
And from that day on, the Timbers did not lose one.
One night at StubHub Center, which started exactly as the narrative demanded – with the Galaxy’s attack overwhelming the Timbers – changed the title race. One half did it. Portland became another team at halftime and in eight minutes, they transformed into the team that would win MLS Cup. The Galaxy went the other way, from having the trophy in one hand to flat on their face as the Timbers ran away.
That was six months ago. The Timbers have started this season slowly, but they’re still champions and that can carry them through the first half of the season. This is MLS, after all. But while the Galaxy are unconvincingly picking up results – a practice that would normally be dismissed as typical of a Bruce Arena team early in the season – there are doubters as to how good they really are.
So yes, it’s the Timbers vs. the Galaxy at StubHub Center, just as it was six months ago. But everything has changed. And that match changed it.