TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- There were several heroes for the Galaxy in Thursday night's CONCACAF Champions League triumph at Motagua. Frankie Hejduk was the last -- and maybe the biggest.
L.A. was holding onto the 1-0 lead forged with Juninho's first-half goal, and the Hondurans, with Amado Guevara serving as orchestrator, were throwing everything into their attack.
As the clock neared 90 minutes, Guevara spread the ball wide to Milton Reyes on the right, and his inch-perfect cross into the goalmouth found Guillermo “Pando” Ramirez with only goalkeeper Josh Saunders between him and the net.
Hejduk stepped in, knocked the ball away, and Jerry Bengtson fired the loose ball over the crossbar. That was it for Motagua, and the Galaxy were celebrating passage to next year's quarterfinals no more than three minutes later.
“You could tell they were going to get a chance and that was their last one, and, luckily, it was,” Hejduk said. “At that point in the game, anything can happen, but this team all year has kept clean sheets, kept games at zeros, and maybe it could have gone either way, but it is a testament to the concentration of guys on the field.
“We were trying to kill off those last minutes of the game. It's never easy [in Central America] to keep games at zero ... but we did a great job as a team defensively.”
Ramirez played for the Galaxy in 2005, scoring just one goal -- but what a goal it was: an overtime strike to beat the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final. He did his best to topple the Galaxy, which had to win to advance to the regional club championship's knockout stage, but the ball bounced up on him, forcing him to take a touch with his chest. That enabled Hejduk to race in from behind, get a piece of the ball and knock it away.
“It was a crazy play, but at the end of the game, those plays happen,” Hejduk said. “They had nothing to lose at that point. They were throwing numbers forward trying to get as many guys in the box as they could, but our defense the whole entire night did an incredible job of just killing plays, and that was one of many that we killed off pretty well.”
LONG, TOUGH HAUL: When CONCACAF divied up 16 clubs in the Champions League group draw three months ago, it was clear which was this tournament's “group of death.”
That the Galaxy went on to prevail in Group A, against opposition for each of the region's other three dominant countries, is a real accomplishment, especially after what happened last month in Morelia, where Robbie Keane's would-be 90th-minute winner was wiped away by an errant offside call, and the Monarcas won in stoppage.
That might have been a debilitating defeat, and a 1-0 defeat at Alajuela that followed meant L.A. faced two must-win games -- the return match against Morelia, at Home Depot Center three weeks ago, and Thursday's clash -- to reach the knockout stage. Juninho made the big play in both, tallying from Chad Barrett's feed in stoppage to beat the Mexicans, 2-1, then scoring that magnificent first-half goal at Motagua.
The grind made passage even more rewarding.
“Very much so,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “I'm really proud of our guys. This tournament, we know, was going to be difficult, because a lot gets thrown at you, but we're fortunate. We've got a lot of guys who have been through a lot of these games and know what to expect.”
CONCACAF hasn't yet determined when the bracket for the knockout phase will be devised -- a spokesman Thursday said it would be scheduled soon -- but the quarterfinals are tentatively slated to be played over two legs in late February and early March. By winning its group, L.A. will get a second-place team (Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC or El Salvador's Isidro Metapan) and play the first leg away.
Three of the five MLS clubs in the competition have advanced, and the neither of the others carries the cache that the Galaxy possesses. Getting through to the next phase was crucial for MLS and the club.
“It's important to advance because of who we are and what team we play for ...,” David Beckham said. “When you play for a team like the Galaxy, it's expected of you.”
The group's two best sides advanced -- Morelia, which finished second, was the deepest, most talented side in A -- but Alajuelense, Central America's premier club, has impressive quality, and Motagua, despite a 0-6-0 record (with five of those losses shutouts) is pretty good, too.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena mentioned that three times in the postgame news conference.
“This group, in my opinion, was the most difficult group in this competition,” he said. “The three teams earning 12 points -- rarely does that happen. And Motagua's a very good team. This was an outstanding group.”
NOT THAT SPECIAL: Juninho in building quite the reputation for long-distance strikes, with five this season -- and his dipping blast in the 29th minute was the best of the lot, and the most important.
The bend was so severe that teammates thought there had to be a deflection on the shot. But nobody in blue was anywhere near him.
“We couldn't really tell from the bench if it deflected or not,” Donovan said.
Said Saunders: “There were differences [of opinion] whether it was a deflection, but from what I saw, it was a great strike.”
Yes, it was, Juninho agreed, but when asked if it was the sweetest of his goals -- especially given its meaning -- he demurred.
ARENA'S 'MISTAKE': Guevara played for Arena after the New York Red Bulls brought the coach in after the 2006 World Cup, and he presented his old boss with his jersey after the match.
The 35-year-old midfielder, MLS's MVP in 2004, was exceptional after coming on at halftime, giving Motagua attacking dimensions it lacked in the first half.
“Amado Guevara for me is a great player,” Arena said. “One of the biggest mistakes I've made in my coaching career is to move Amado from New York to Chivas USA [following the 2006 season]. I think he's a great player.”
Guevara's time at Chivas was short. Then-coach Preki wasn't pleased with his work ethic and traded him to Toronto FC, in its first season, after he'd made just four appearance at the start of the 2007 campaign.
WHERE'S JOVAN?: The best question for Arena in the postgame news conference came from a Honduran reporter who wanted to know why Jovan Kirovski did not play. It elicited laughter from both American media members in the room.
The former U.S. national-teamer, at 35 a key, versatile reserve for the Galaxy, was in the 18, but he's seen action in just 15 games this season, all competitions, with two starts and just three minutes, at Morelia, in the CCL.
Arena's answer: “I'm only allowed to make three subs.”
Kirovski, told of the exchange Friday morning, said he would ask Arena about it. “I'll tell him: 'I heard my cousin asked about me.' ”
'SCARY' RIDE: The Galaxy required two airplanes to get to Honduras, switching in San Salvador to a smaller jet better suited for the Tegucigalpa airport's lone, short runway, which requires a sharp, somewhat frightening descent into the mountainous city.
It was planned from the start, but the Honduran press reported that the Taca Airlines pilot decided to land in El Salvador because he was “scared” of the airport -- or because of the rain, an odd assumption given the heavy downpours that led to flooding and more than a dozen deaths in El Salvador the previous week.
Sure enough, it was raining when the team arrived in San Salvador. The weather following a 45-minute flight to Tegucigalpa was quite nice.
HERE, KITTY: Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino, Honduras' national stadium, is home to both of Tegucigalpa's soccer teams -- Motagua and Olimpia, the country's two biggest clubs. And to a family of cats.
That's not odd: Feral cats serve to keep the mouse/rat population down, and several felines were spotted a month ago when the Galaxy visited Alajuelense's stadium. A fat cat -- probably pregnant, or maybe she had just eaten a rat -- was stationed in the suites at Morelia's stadium, too. Some older American stadiums also boast a cat community, and it's common in South America and Europe, too.
Carias Andino's most popular resident might be an adventurous kitten, a tabby, that received plenty of attention from the media during L.A.'s training session Wednesday night.
She emerged from a space underneath the stands on the “Nacional” side of the stadium, nibbled on grass, played with a few of the sand bags ringing the track that surrounds the field and approached beckoning reporters -- including this one -- to be petted and play with the straps of our bags.
She received more attention in the bowels of the stadium when training was closed to the media after 15 minutes -- she licked my fingers for a good two minutes, after I'd eaten a bag of chips -- then got a little time on the field when practice was reopened after about an hour.
She chased an errant ball a good 20 yards, dodging disaster when a policeman -- armed, like all of the police on the Galaxy detail, with machine gun -- booted the ball back onto the field (drawing a few boos), then camped out at the corner flag for a few minutes, pawing it and checking out the players.
WORTH NOTING: Postgame visitors to the Galaxy locker room included the family of Honduran president Porfirio Lobo and U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske, whose husband wore a U.S. jersey that Donovan signed. ... Guevara greeted Arena and several Galaxy players -- including former New York teammate Mike Magee -- in the hallway outside the locker rooms as soon as the Galaxy's bus arrived at the stadium, catching up for about 15 minutes. ... Donovan, coming off a quadriceps injury, played only the final 22 minutes, plus two minutes' stoppage. It was enough. “That was pretty much the max. I'm sore now,” he said afterward. “Get rest now over the next week and a half and be ready” for the playoffs. ...
The best players the Galaxy faced in Group A? In our opinion, Morelia winger Joao Rojas and Alajuelense midfielder Pablo Antonio Gabas. Another who impressed Bengtson, whose speed and skill challenged the Galaxy defense and might have caused real damage had he had decent support. The Ciclon Azul's 4-4-1-1 formation didn't help, but Motagua has only one other player close to his ability, and that's aging midfielder Guevara, who is nearing the end of his career. There is interest in Bengtson in Spain, and even club loyalists admit that it's time for the Honduran national-teamer to move on to a bigger club and a bigger league. ... Longest commute for the Galaxy: Kirovski, who makes the trip to and from Escondido, his northern San Diego County hometown, every day.