MLS' 20th season is being billed as the dawn of a new era, but the opener felt like business as usual as the defending champion Galaxy dispatched the Fire with relative ease in front of a sold-out crowd.
CARSON, Calif. — Here in metro Los Angeles, common wisdom dictated that MLS would play its 20th opening game in something of a new reality. A revamped CBA would be in place, drastically changing the ways players can move from club to club within the league. A $720 million, eight-year television contract would begin with the Chicago Fire’s visit to the LA Galaxy live on Univision. And on that Spanish-language network, for the first time, there would be an English SAP feature.
Instead, one left the game with a sense that, if this is MLS’ new dawn, it looks an awful lot like the old one. In what amounted to a doubling-down of the league's on-field status quo, the Fire were outclassed from start to finish, the defending champion Galaxy got an efficient 2-0 win and the 2015 season kicked off at a sold-out Stubhub Center, the same place where the 2014 season ended with the same attendance.
“It’s the same team,” Galaxy manager Bruce Arena said with a slight chuckle after the game. “They’re an experienced group, they know how to play. They’ve tasted a lot of success and they understand what they need to do to win games.”
The lack of change wasn’t confined to the field. Yes, the league’s new CBA with its players grants an increase in the minimum salary and offers a form of free agency, but by and large player transactions within the league will continue as in the past. Yes, Univision carried the game, but the SAP English function didn’t work for many, and Twitter once again overflowed with questions regarding what the Spanish-language announcers were saying on-air.
None of that is to say that there weren’t tangible changes evident in MLS at 20. But even when there were, the final results remained the same as before.
Recent retiree Landon Donovan, for example, wasn’t part of the Galaxy team for the first time in a decade. He greeted Galaxy players by the bench during the pregame raising of the 2014 championship banner, but he now wore a resplendent gray suit and a colorful tie with a fat knot instead of the team’s white getup with shorts and a sash across the chest.
“It was a little weird,” Galaxy midfielder Baggio Husidic said. “It’s like, Oh, he’s not playing with us anymore.”
The absence of the league’s best-ever player theoretically should have weakened a Galaxy team that had no major additions to their squad. Instead, from the first minute the defending champs overran the Fire, a team that hired a new head coach (Frank Yallop) and boasted a squad with nine new additions (four in the starting 11 alone).
“I don’t think about [Donovan] as a teammate anymore. I think about him as a friend,” LA's Omar Gonzalez said. “Seeing him was nice, but that didn’t throw us off at all.”
Homegrown products Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes gave a glimpse of what was to come just minutes into the game, working neat combinations down the left flank, one of which earned the Galaxy an early free kick that Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson did well to bat out of danger.
Stefan Ishizaki, dangerous all evening on the right flank, conjured a duo of chances to close the half that went wasted. Villarreal skied his shot attempt high and wide in the 41st minute on the first, then Ishizaki missed a wide-open Robbie Keane on an open goal on the second.
Keane, the 2014 MLS MVP, kicked the goalpost in anger. His frustration was evident, but the overall message was clear—the Fire were under serious pressure.
“[Keane] wants the ball quicker, and we have to play him quicker. He’s a threat,” Zardes said. “When you have a captain like that, he keeps the team under control. He’s always saying that the goals are going to come.”
The Galaxy got their breakthrough thanks to a bit of self-destruction from the Fire defense, with both Lovel Palmer and Jeff Larentowicz failing to clear an innocuous ball in the box, allowing it to fall right by Villarreal's left foot. This time, the winger made no mistake.
“In the first half, Chicago really didn’t have much,” said Gonzalez. “I thought they came out with more energy in the second half, but we found a way to get goals.”
Whatever weak attempt Chicago made to get back into the game was crushed by the Galaxy back line, which seemed equally adept at starting attacks of its own. Gonzalez, as has become his trademark, became the team’s primary playmaker at center back, lofting several on-point services from the comfort of his own half.
“I always try to be the first line of attack,” he said. “It takes me back to my old days.”
The Galaxy’s second goal came this way, as the substitute Husidic got the back of his head on a Gonzalez service, which (possibly unintentionally) fell right to Keane. The Irishman scored, and just like last season, killed the game with gusto.