ALAJUELA, Costa Rica -- The Galaxy exited Costa Rica enthusiastic about the atmosphere they encountered at Alajuelense's stadium, but far less so about the unyielding artificial surface that led to what coach Bruce Arena called a “sloppy game” -- and not at all, of course, with the result.
Alajuela's 1-0 CONCACAF Champions League triumph Wednesday night at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto won't be remembered for much more than the intensity of the Costa Rican fans and Pablo Antonio's exquisite first-half free kick that provided the lone goal.
The Galaxy (2-2-0) dropped to third in the Group A with the defeat, behind Alajuelense (3-1-0) and Morelia (3-1-0), which picked up a road win Thursday, winning, 2-0, against Motagua in Honduras.
Home teams have won every game in the group except the two in Tegucigalpa, and therein lies the Galaxy's path to next year's knockout stage of the region's club championship. It's rather simple, really: Win the last two group games -- against Morelia on Wednesday night at Home Depot Center and Oct. 20 at Motagua -- and L.A. is through.
All because the loss in suburban San Jose was, in one very real sense, a victory. Not that it felt like one.
Landon Donovan said the Galaxy “were a little naïve in the way we played, the way we went about things” and David Beckham acknowledged that L.A., after Donovan went just wide with a rebound in the fourth minute, didn't “create too much after that” and that “sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say you were beaten by a team that performed better on the night and also scored a great goal.”
“I don't think we played well,” Arena said. “The field was real difficult to play on. Obviously, our opponent is more comfortable on the surface. We're not using it as an excuse, but it's a terrible field to play this kind of competition on. ... You don't want to use that as an excuse. That would not be fair. That would not give our opponent the credit they deserve.”
Winning on the road, especially in Mexico and Central America, is difficult in the Champions League, and field conditions are part of it. Alajuela's turf is similar to Club Tijuana's at Estadio Caliente: green plastic with rubberized pellets that offers little give and unnatural bounces, and La Liga's manager, Oscar Ramirez, didn't disagree with Arena's assessment.
“It's difficult in Costa Rica,” he said through an interpreter. “We don't have the kinds of fields you have in the U.S. It's difficult for grass. It rains too much.”
That's true. San Jose is surrounded by rain forests, and torrential rains hit both days the Galaxy was in town, almost like clockwork, right around 2 p.m. How that impacts grass fields is anyone's guess, but Alajuela knows its advantages and used them against the Galaxy.
Advantage No. 1 is the stadium, a cramped, somewhat decrepit marvel of wood, tin and concrete that seats a little less than 18,000 -- but seems to hold so many more. The construction is ingenius: The stands rise above the field, only a few steps separating the diehards lined behind the metal fences ringing the field and the sideline.
The stands rise like a wall, much like Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion -- the most impressive facility in which I've ever seen a match. Even those sitting in the top row are right on top of the field.
They're all wearing red and black, singing and chanting and questioning the purity of the opposing players' mothers, and the crowd in full voice sounds like a gathering eight or nine times larger. That impressed the Galaxy.
“It was a good crowd, probably the loudest crowd I've ever played in front of ...,” defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “You could barely hear the person next to you.”
“That atmosphere was insane ...,” midfielder Mike Magee said. “The crowd was amazing. They were loud, they were cheering. They definitely helped [their team] out by getting on the refs. A couple of times I don't think the ref knew anything of the calls, but the fans were incredible, and they definitely help their team.”
We saw that occur twice. Omar Gonzalez was cautioned in first-half stoppage after La Liga forward Jonathan McDonald bowed his head as Gonzalez cleared a ball with a volley. Maybe it's a foul for dangerous play, but in no way is it a yellow card -- except with the Alajuela supporters berating Jamaican referee Courtney Campbell.
Again early in the second half, when Beckham tripped Luis Miguel Valle, a clear foul and a borderline card that Campbell appeared to elect not to reward. The roaring stadium and lobbying by a couple of Alajuelense players seemed to change his mind, and now Beckham is suspended for the Morelia game.
How was it a victory for the Galaxy? Simple. CONCACAF, like UEFA and a couple of other misguided organizations, uses head-to-head results rather than goal difference as the first standings tiebreaker.
If the Galaxy, Morelia and Alajuela finish with 12 points -- that'll happen if the home-win pattern holds everywhere but Motagua -- the results among the three will determine which two head to the quarterfinals. The Galaxy won its head-to-head with Alajuelense on goal difference, with a 2-0 home triumph, and a victory over Morelia would erase the Monarcas' one-goal advantage from last week's game.
Everything is contingent on winning next week.
“Obviously,” Arena said, “the game against Morelia is a big game. It's a must-win for us.”
1. Alajuelense (Costa Rica) 3-1-0 (6-4) 9 points
2. Morelia (Mexico) 3-1-0 (8-2) 9
3. Galaxy 2-2-0 (5-4) 6
4. Motagua (Honduras) 0-4-0 (2-12) 0