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Awkward timing creates tension for LA Galaxy, MLS in Leagues Cup semifinal against Cruz Azul

3:07 PM EDT 8/20/19
Zlatan Ibrahimovic LA Galaxy 2019
The new tournament would benefit if the MLS side reaches the final, but manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto has bigger concerns on the horizon

The LA Galaxy's roster for Tuesday night's Leagues Cup semifinal against Cruz Azul came out Monday. It later was 'corrected' with a few changes that drew the eye - and they weren't the swap from Justin Vom Steeg to Erik Lopez as third goalkeeper or the sudden omission of LA Galaxy II defender Justin Fiddes.

Now on the roster, after missing the initial list, are forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic and winger Cristian Pavon. Previously Ethan Zubak (Total MLS minutes: 40) was the only forward listed on the roster, and even after the changes midfielder Jonathan dos Santos and several other Galaxy regulars aren't even in the squad for the semifinal.

The first roster still seems like a pretty good indication Ibra and Pavon will make at best cameos and could still miss out on the contest all together. While Cruz Azul likely will put out a strong side, as it did with its best XI in a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire in the quarterfinal the Galaxy are unlikely to do the same.

It's worth noting, though, that the roster isn't all that different from the squad the Galaxy used to get here in the first place. While the Galaxy won 3-1 on penalties in a highly entertaining contest against Club Tijuana that finished 2-2 after 90 minutes, it was hardly their best team. Zubak started that game. So too did Kai Koreniuk, who is still awaiting his MLS debut, and back-up goalkeeper Matt Lampson.

LA Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto doesn't seem to be down on the tournament in general. "It's a good idea. I think we can learn from each other," he insisted Monday. But it's unlikely he'll put much of a priority on Tuesday's game with the Galaxy in the midst of an arduous stretch of schedule and with a rivalry match against LAFC coming Sunday in league play.

"Unfortunately, the calendar isn’t working in our favor. We came in playing every three days, this is the fourth game we’re going to play. Honestly, there are players who need rest," he said Monday at a news conference. "Pavon got here, he played three days later, then he played again three days later. It could hurt him, because he could get injured, but also for the team not having him at 100 percent.

"You can’t obligate him to play, keeping in mind as well that Sunday we’re playing our derby against LAFC, which is an important game not only with the context of playing the other team in the city but also the points we can get are important for our future."

Thing is, the only way the Leagues Cup final will be compelling is if the Galaxy are able to top their visitors from Mexico City. The whole point of the Leagues Cup, a tournament introduced this year with three rounds but set to expand to eight teams from each MLS and Liga MX next year, is to have interleague competition. A final featuring Mexican teams? We've seen it before. Not only do Cruz Azul and America play in the same league and meet twice a year, they also have met in the last two playoffs. Each team now calls the historic Estadio Azteca home, creating exciting atmospheres 

What hope does a mid-September game in Las Vegas have of maintaining the same intensity of matches played in the Azteca with the right to get one step closer to the Liga MX title? Or a game between Cruz Azul and Tigres, another matchup we see regularly in league play but with even less of a hint of rivalry?

Schelotto didn't ask for his team to be the only MLS side to make it through, and other MLS teams put more effort into getting through to this stage. Nevertheless, the Galaxy are now flying the MLS flag, whether it's the banner they want over their heads or not.

"Obviously … It’s not that we have an obligation, but, yes, we know we’re the only MLS team left in this competitions and we have to try to get to the final," Schelotto said. "We’ll try to do that (Tuesday), knowing that we have a near-future with a lot of important games in the league ahead of us. This is game we want to take on with all the seriousness it deserves and try to win."

Taking it seriously is one thing. Going all-out is another. Leagues Cup is here to stay, but if an understrength Galaxy can upset an historic Mexico team hoping to win a trophy will go a long way toward determining whether the first edition is seen as a forgettable false start or the appetizer for a tasty main course of competitive tournaments in the future.