The Galaxy returned to Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday for the first time since COVID-19 shut down Major League Soccer in March. But it wasn’t exactly the homecoming the team had envisioned.
The stadium was empty, with massive blue tarps covering the normally crowded grandstands along the east sideline. And the hushed din of a taped crowd, which sounded more like white noise than fan noise, did little to make the game feel like anything more than a preseason scrimmage.
But if the atmosphere wasn’t satisfying, the result was, with the Galaxy twice erasing deficits to earn a 3-2 win over San Jose on Sebastian Lletget’s goal in the 82nd minute.
The goal was the second in as many games for Lletget since he moved to the center of the field while the win was the second in as many tries for the Galaxy.
San Jose got goals from Valeri Qazaishvili and Cade Cowell — one in each half — while Daniel Steres and Cristian Pavón also scored for the Galaxy.
“We showed a lot of character, going down a couple of goals,” Lletget said. “We didn’t put our heads down.”
The Galaxy are much improved from the team that returned from the MLS Is Back tournament last month without a victory. And they were playing Saturday for the second time in the league’s reboot of the suspended regular season, a sprint that will see teams play 18 times between mid-August and early November.
The Galaxy were supposed to play at home last Wednesday but that match, along with four others, was postponed when MLS players joined with those from the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball in sitting out games to call attention to systemic racism and police brutality. That result was an exhausting and emotional week even without the extra game.
“The week was tough,” Steres said. “It was an interesting one going through that. We just wanted to get back on the field.“
With no fans in the stands, the national anthem was not played, but both teams took a knee during a pregame moment of silence in recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. It really didn’t get much louder once the game began, allowing the shouts of the players and coaches to echo throughout the empty stadium.
The Victoria Block, the new safe-standing supporters’ section on the north end, was silent, a couple of dozen banners and handful of flags socially distanced throughout the 2,000 seats while about a hundred cardboard cutouts of fans leaned against aluminum backrests in the upper rows of two sections behind the south goal.
P.A. announcer Michael Araujo, who was a half-hour down the freeway working the Angels game in Anaheim, recorded the names for the Galaxy’s starting lineup from his home in Upland earlier in the week — with an assist from the players’ families and, in one case, a pet. But during the game, goals, substitutions and cautions went unacknowledged, as if they never happened.
Adding to the challenge for the Galaxy were the Earthquakes, a team they had beaten once in their six most recent tries. But then this has been an unusual season too for San Jose, which was playing for the first time in four weeks.
The Galaxy, as they did in last week’s win over LAFC, came out pressing. San Jose (2-2-2) needed less than 11 minutes to break that press, though, with Qazaishvili losing defender Julian Araujo on a diagonal run through the center to the penalty area. Tommy Thompson then sliced a pass from the end line through three Galaxy defenders to Qazaishvili, who nudged it in with his left foot.
The Galaxy (2-3-2) matched that in the 33rd minute when a leaping Steres, his back turned toward the goal, used his left shoulder to deflect Lletget’s long free kick just inside the near post.
Cowell, making his first MLS start, got that one back 14 minutes into the second half, taking possession on the left wing, dribbling across the top of the box to create space, then one-hopping a soft right-footed shot in at the far side for his first MLS goal.
Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto answered by sending midfielders Jonathan dos Santos and Efraín Alvarez on and the team responded with consecutive goals. The first came from Pavón, who evened the score in the 72nd minute on a penalty kick, awarded when Tanner Beason was called for a hand ball in the box.
“Efraín has been training like a true professional for three weeks,” Schelotto, speaking in Spanish, said of Alvarez, who has struggled to get playing time this season. “We have spoken to him a lot. He is very talented but if he does not train as he is, it will be difficult.
“Today I am very happy because he is working a lot and very hard looking for his opportunity.”
His biggest opportunity Saturday came in the 82nd minute and he didn’t waste it, bending a corner kick toward the far post for a charging Lletget, who deflected it with his body for the Galaxy’s third set-piece goal of the night.
“All I had was to hit it with my chest,” Lletget said. “That was my only option.”
With consecutive wins the Galaxy, which outshot San Jose 21-10, are enjoying just their second winning streak in 15 months.
“When you win, it gives you confidence,” Pavón said in Spanish. “We won two games and we’ve gotten a lot of confidence from that. But we’re going step by step.”