Landon Donovan celebrates with teammate Mike Magee after Donovan converted… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)
There have been times this season when the Galaxy has looked like anything but a champion. Good thing appearances aren't nearly as important as results when it comes to the playoffs, which the Galaxy opened Thursday by rallying for a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps at the Home Depot Center.
Goals from Mike Magee and Landon Donovan during a four-minute span of the second half sent the defending MLS champions on to the Western Conference semifinals against the San Jose Earthquakes. The two-leg playoff, which will be decided on aggregate goals, will begin Sunday in Carson.
And though the Earthquakes entered the postseason with the league's best record, Dave Sarachan, the Galaxy's associate head coach, believes his team has something better going for it: confidence and experience.
"People forget — we don't talk about it — but we're the defending champs," said Sarachan, whose team hasn't lost a postseason game in more than two seasons. "These guys have a lot of medals around their neck. They know that game and what it means and what they need to bring."
Still, the short-handed Galaxy had to bring everything it had Thursday to beat back an inspired Vancouver team.
After battling injuries all season, the team was down three regulars against the Whitecaps — among them defenders Sean Franklin and A.J. DeLaGarza — and it might have lost another Thursday when midfielder Juninho had to be carried off the field after leaving the game in the 83rd minute.
The normally punchless Whitecaps wasted little time exploiting the makeshift back line, with midfielder Matt Watson running away from right back Hector Jimenez before sending a pass into the box for Darren Mattocks, whom rookie Tommy Meyer had lost track of. That gave Mattocks enough space to direct a right-footed shot into the bottom-left corner for a 1-0 lead after three minutes.
It also gave the Whitecaps an excuse to drop back deep in their own end, largely ignore the ball and play defense, a strength for a team that gave up fewer goals than all but three teams this season. The Galaxy, however, didn't panic.
"It's the kind of game we expected," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. "We had a lot of the ball and they played behind it and tried to make things difficult for us. We showed a lot of character to scrap and fight and get back into the game."
In fact, Arena's team controlled the ball for three-quarters of the first half, although its best scoring opportunity came in the final minute on a David Beckham free kick that was headed for the upper-left corner before Vancouver keeper Brad Knighton got just enough of his right hand on the ball to knock it wide.
The was the last of 13 shots the Whitecaps conceded in the first half, and one of 23 they allowed in the game. That conservative strategy seemed to take its toll in the second half as Vancouver's defense tired, helping an unmarked Magee get the equalizer in the 69th minute on a right-footed shot from about 12 yards. It was his fourth goal in his last six playoff games.
It then fell to Donovan, who has publicly questioned his own commitment and desire during an injury-plagued year, to score the winner.
After being tripped by Martin Bonjour in the area, the Galaxy captain stepped to almost the same spot Magee had scored from and converted his penalty kick, beating Knighton high and to the left and sending the Galaxy on to the conference semifinals.