Galaxy overcoming season of injuries and adversity to stay in playoff hunt

LA Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig, right, controls the ball away from Vancouver Whitecaps.
Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig, shown here controlling the ball during a match against Vancouver's Andrés Cubasin March, scored in a 2-2 draw with St. Louis City at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Galaxy.

Through the first 12 weeks of the MLS schedule, the team won just twice in 14 games, falling to the bottom of the Western Conference. But it’s been one of the hottest teams in the league since then, losing just one of its last 12 regular-season games.

The Galaxy has gained just one spot in the standings since May, however, leaving them with a lot of heavy lifting still to do if they hope to reach the playoffs. And while they got a good start on that Sunday, rallying from an early two-goal deficit to draw conference-leading St. Louis 2-2 before a crowd of 19,554 on a warm afternoon at Dignity Health Sports Park, they could have had more.

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The Galaxy finished with massive edges in both shots (20-5) and possession (70%-30%) yet got just one point out of it despite playing the final half hour with a man advantage.

“We're down the stretch now. And every point matters,” coach Greg Vanney said. “It's a good point. But I know we all know there was an opportunity for three points tonight.”

The goals came from Riqui Puig on a penalty kick in the 51st minute and from second-half substitute Billy Sharp, who scored against a short-handed defense with seven minutes left in regulation. The result left the Galaxy (7-10-9), four points and four places out of the ninth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference with eight games to play. But it also left the team unbeaten since returning from its monthlong Leagues Cup break.

“It's in our own hands,” Sharp said of the playoff race. “We know what we have to do.”

Injuries have decimated Vanney’s team, which has lost six starters for significant stretches this season. Defender Lucas Calegari, whose 22 starts ranks second on the team, was the latest to go down after sustaining a knee injury earlier this month. He could be the fourth player to have his season end early because of injury.

And now Vanney said Rique Puig — who is wearing the armband only because the team’s first two choices for captain are hurt — missed training last week with a groin problem that bothered him throughout the game.

“There's a lot of things that have come out of this stretch,” Vanney said. “They've taken a lot of punches over the course of the season, between guys getting injured and other things going on and around. But they've remained resilient. We keep finding ways to get results. And today, [after] the bad start, we still managed to get a result out of it.

“We understand though, that in the [final] stretch that one point at a time isn't going to get us to where we need to get to.”

St. Louis needed less than four minutes to take advantage of the Galaxy’s injury-riddled back line, going in front on Samuel Adeniran’s seventh goal of the season. The Galaxy argued for an offside call but didn’t get it.

That was a bad omen for the Galaxy: St. Louis (15-10-3), which leads the Western Conference, is second in the Supporters’ Shield table and has the best goal differential in the league 28 games into its first MLS season. It has lost just once this season after scoring first. That streak held Sunday, but just barely.

The Galaxy’s first chance at pulling even came in the 25th minute when defender Mauricio Cuevas bent a long cross to the top of the six-yard box for Dejan Joveljic, but his header went right to St. Louis keeper Roman Bürki. St. Louis responded by doubling its advantage three minutes later when João Klauss rolled a shot through the legs of Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond. St. Louis beat Bond once more before intermission, but this time Adeniran was clearly offside before putting the pull inside the side netting from a tough angle in the 37th minute.

The Galaxy halved the deficit when Puig converted a penalty following a handball call on Adenrian. Nine minutes later, the omnipresent Adenrian was given his second yellow of the game for a reckless challenge on Puig, sending Puig to the turf and Adenrian to the locker room, leaving St. Louis to finish the game with 10 players.

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The Galaxy needed 23 minutes to capitalize on the man advantage, with second-half substitute Diego Fagúndez angling a free kick to the far post for Uri Rosell, whose header fell to Sharp, who banged it in with his right foot for his second goal in four games.

Two of the three players who contributed to that score — Fagúndez and Sharp — weren't on the roster at the start of August.

“I don't think anyone's happy with 2-2,” Fagundez said. “We wanted to leave here with three points and go home and be happy about it. But at the same time, we didn't lose any points, which is huge.

“Every point right now matters for us. This one point, it might have not been enough for us. But we'll take it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.