Sacha Kljestan's huge goal in win over Portland rejuvenates Galaxy's playoff push

LA Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan, center, celebrates after scoring on a penalty kick.
Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan, center, celebrates after scoring on a penalty kick in stoppage time during a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The Galaxy came out of the two-week MLS international break Saturday riding their worst winless streak in three seasons. And while it took two months of poor play and bad luck to put that slide together, veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan predicted a single bolt of lightning could turn that all around.

“I’ve been through this before,” he said last week. “It takes one big game, it takes one big play to change the outcome and change the feeling within the team.”

Kljestan provided that Saturday, converting a penalty kick two minutes into stoppage time to give the Galaxy a vital 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers at Dignity Health Sports Park.

The win ended a nine-game winless streak and kept the Galaxy sixth in the Western Conference table, two places and five points above the line to qualify for next month’s MLS playoffs. And just as Kljestan said, it all turned on one big play, with second-half substitute Efraín Álvarez making a zig-zagging run through the box that forced defender Josecarlos Van Rankin into a poor tackle, toppling Álvarez and drawing a foul.

Kljestan then stepped up and drilled the ball past Portland keeper Steve Clark, who dived the right way but wasn’t quick enough to catch up to the hard right-footed shot that went into the left corner of the goal.

The Galaxy (12-11-6) had been frustrated for more than an hour by Clark when a misplay by defender Larry Mabiala opened the door for Javier “Chicharito” Hernández to get his team on the scoreboard in the 62nd minute.

Mabiala was perfectly positioned to intercept a cross from Víctor Vázquez, but whiffed on the play, allowing the pass to bounce through his legs to Hernández, who deflected it in at the far post for his team-leading 13th goal of the season. That was a good omen since the Galaxy were 10-2-2 when they score first — something they haven’t done in their last six games, none of which they won.

Sebastián Blanco, given acres of space on the right wing, matched that for Portland (14-11-4) 10 minutes later, chipping a left-footed shot over Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond and off the far post.

Blanco nearly put Portland ahead in the 86th minute, but his right-footed shot from distance bounced off the left post, opening the way for Kljestan, who had come on 15 minutes earlier.

The Galaxy dominated the opening 45 minutes, holding the ball for nearly a half hour and outshooting the sloppy Timbers 11-2. But they had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.

The frustration continued early in the second half, with Clark making a pair of good stops on Kévin Cabral seconds part.

Minutes later Hernández blew a great opportunity from the center of the box by sending his right-footed shot right at Clark, who gathered it in for the sixth of his seven saves on the night.

Hernández eventually made up for that with his goal before Kljestan scored the game-winner. For coach Greg Vanney, there is no margin for error with five games left in the regular season.

“This is a real challenge for all of us,” he said. “We’re in this stretch now where at least some of these games are must-win games.”

Attendance was announced at 15,322 based on tickets distributed, but the crowd was significantly smaller, in part because of L.A. County requiring fans to show proof of a vaccination or negative COVID-19 test.

The Galaxy hope to end an extended slump and regain the form that enabled them to win seven of their first 10 matches this season. An MLS playoff berth is on the line.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.