TAMPA, Fla. — For 80 minutes Saturday night, the future of the Galaxy was at stake.
And for 80 minutes in the heat and humidity of a Florida summer evening and against at least two of the most dangerous players in Major League Soccer, the future looked good.
Then, reality landed a cruel pair of punches.
In the 81st minute, Tampa Bay Mutiny midfielder Josh Keller bent an in-swinging cross into the Galaxy goalmouth. Defender Steve Trittschuh got his head to the ball to power a 15-yard shot just beneath the crossbar and barely beyond the outstretched left fingertips of goalkeeper Matt Reis.
In the 87th minute, the Mutiny's Kevin Anderson received the ball from Carlos Valderrama and sent a diagonal pass through the Galaxy defense to Mamadou "Big Mama" Diallo. The giant striker from Senegal, momentarily unguarded, smashed home a shot from close range.
Just like that, a courageous and encouraging performance by a Galaxy team that featured only two regular starters and no fewer than seven rookies in the second half ended in a 2-0 defeat in front of 9,342 at Raymond James Stadium.
But although heads were hanging afterward in the Galaxy locker room, they should not have been.
Tampa Bay Coach Tim Hankinson had warned his players not to take the Galaxy's collection of first-year players and second-stringers lightly.
"It's a little like a milk carton with whiskey in it," he said. "On the outside, it doesn't look dangerous, but on the inside, watch out."
And so it proved.
With defenders Paul Caligiuri and rookie Danny Califf and midfielder Simon Elliott the only regulars in Coach Sigi Schmid's starting lineup because of injuries and World Cup call-ups, the Galaxy looked thin. Things got even more bleak when Elliott, who has flu, had to come out after 37 minutes, and when defender Zak Ibsen pulled up lame with a suspected torn right hamstring in the 44th minute.
After 79 minutes, all Schmid had left on his bench were two A-League players, Sheldon Thomas and goalkeeper Russell Payne.
The Galaxy (10-7-7) should have been soundly beaten by the Central Division leaders, especially since the Mutiny (12-9-2) featured the league's leading goalscorer, Diallo, and Valderrama, who set an MLS record Saturday with his 20th assist of the season.
In fact, Tampa Bay could have won in a rout but for the Galaxy's solid defensive play, a strong performance by Reis--who saved a penalty kick by the Mutiny's Steve Ralston in the 74th minute--and a sizable measure of luck.
Tampa Bay hit the crossbar on one shot and the left post on another during one furious goalmouth scramble.
"We dodged more than a few bullets," Schmid said. "We dodged probably an entire revolver on that one series alone. Reis came up with a big save on the penalty.
"At the end of the day it was just a situation where we ran out of gas. . . . I can't fault my team. Considering the players we were missing, I thought the guys put forward a great effort."
Hankinson echoed the comment.
"Maybe we should have done better at home against a team that came in with some question marks, but they gave it a good fight," he said. "They played with their heads up and very aggressively. They should be proud of their effort."
Dominic Kinnear, a former U.S. national team player, also praised L.A.'s performance.
"They went in with a good game plan," he said. "They weren't as explosive offensively, and to be fair they didn't create a whole lot [of scoring opportunities], but I thought they defended well. As soon as we got the ball, they got behind the ball very, very well."
But the Mutiny's more aggressive second-half effort finally wore the Galaxy down and defenders started missing assignments.
"I was kind of wide open," Trittschuh, another U.S. national team veteran, said of his goal. "It was mine to lose."
Said Reis, who barely had time to see the ball: "I'd like to see the shot clock on that one."
The Galaxy won't have much time to recover. The team leaves for San Diego on Monday for a Tuesday night U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 game against the A-League's San Diego Flash.