LOS ANGELES — After a commanding first half, the Galaxy battled in the second to secure a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake. With the win, the team improved to 8-1-1, moving past LAFC to secure the top spot in the Western Conference for the first time this season.
The Galaxy settled into its offensive flow early, finding room to maintain possession and prod at the Real Salt Lake defense with measured passes in and out of the box. Zlatan Ibrahimović found dangerous chances early, and from there it became inevitable that a goal was soon to come.
It finally came in the 16th minute, born from the simple threat of Ibrahimović. After several minutes of the star striker poking at the defense in the box, his mere presence at the top of it tugged at the Real Salt Lake defense, forcing multiple backs to sag in towards him.
When a pass came straight to Ibrahimović’s feet, the defense fell onto the striker, not the ball, which he let slip past him directly to a wide-open Chris Pontius. After taking a pair of touches, Pontius sliced the ball straight across the face of the goal, where Uriel Antuna waited to send it ricocheting into the net. The score marked the first goal of Antuna’s young MLS career.
The Galaxy dominated in the first half, spreading the field for protracted periods of time with its methodical passing attack. The result was at once commanding and frustrating — the Galaxy kept the ball mainly in its attacking third, which kept Real Salt Lake on its heels, but its patient attack led to a flurry of missed chances. The team took eight shots and placed five on frame, tallying three official missed chances.
Apr 28, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (9) and Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman (5) battle for the ball during the first half at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
And those statistics failed to capture the many other missed opportunities for the Galaxy, often within the box. The Real Salt Lake defense struggled to contain the Galaxy mainly due to defensive spacing, either sagging too far inwards or allowing balls to slip through the middle. On more than one occasion, Galaxy attackers gathered passes only a handful of feet off from the goal line, only to take one too many steps or fumble the delivery from close range.
That became quickly clear in the second half, when Real Salt Lake bolstered itself on the offensive. Damir Kreilach slammed a ball off the cross bar in the 54th minute, sending it bouncing only inches away from the goal line. Minutes later, Donny Toia slotted in a ball that ricocheted off the gloves of keeper David Bingham, and in a matter of 15 minutes the Galaxy saw the score leveled in a game that felt effortlessly under control for the first half.
Buoyed by the score, Real Salt Lake mounted an increasingly furious attack in search of a game-winner, which led to a very different second half. After taking only four shots, only one on frame, in the entire first half, Real Salt Lake finished with 22 shots. But in the end, the Galaxy found its strength where it has all season: Ibrahimović.
In the 79th minute, the striker patiently floated in the middle of box, tapping out a series of passes as his offense worked around the perimeter. Finally, he found a few feet of space directly in front of the goalkeeper and received the ball back from Sebastian Lletget, turning to slip the ball into the net. The resulting roar from the crowd was the loudest of the night, as gold sparklers and a cloud of smoke filled the bowl of the stadium and the Galaxy took the lead.
With only 12 minutes left, the Galaxy only had to hold onto its advantage to secure the three points that propelled it to the top of the Western Conference rankings. As the buzzer sounded, continuing to up the ante on its crosstown battle with LAFC for the rights to both Los Angeles and the Western Conference.