ALAJUELA, Costa Rica – When the LA Galaxy visited Costa Rica in 2006 for a CONCACAF Champions' Cup match, few could have predicted their fortunes would have been as awful as they were.
In their only previous trip here for international competition, the club squandered a 2-0 lead at halftime and wound up losing 3-2 to Deportivo Saprissa, knocking the Galaxy out in the quarterfinal stage.
But what happened after made the series irrelevant.
Then-Galaxy president and general manager Doug Hamilton died of a heart attack on a flight from San Jose to Los Angeles, sending the team on an emotional tailspin from which it took quite some time to recover. He was just 43 years old.
“Everything changed after that,” said defender Todd Dunivant, one of two current players on the roster then.
Dunivant, who was traded later in the 2006 season but returned before the 2009 campaign, was not on the trip to Costa Rica due to injury, but captain Landon Donovan was there and scored one of the club’s two goals in the match.
Plans to help the Galaxy indulge in some of what Costa Rica had to offer had already been made, as the club was set for a four-day trip in a beach resort.
“After the game, [then head coach Steve] Sampson had told us that we would go to the West Coast of Costa Rica, to Tamarindo, for four days,” Donovan said. “We went out, got there and it was this incredible resort, beautiful sprawling beaches and everybody was so happy. Then we got the call that Doug had passed away.”
One minute, the Galaxy were leading Saprissa and on the verge of pulling off an upset; the next minute, they’d given up a late goal and were bounced from the tournament.
One minute, Hamilton was there watching the club he put together work its magic; the next minute, he was gone.
“That was a crazy moment," Donovan recalled. "That day was a roller coaster because we had lost the night before, a long bus ride all day and then we got to this place and it was actually just so peaceful and tranquil and everyone was just on the beach all day. I remember us just coming down for dinner, they pulled us all in and told us what happened. We ended up staying down and kind of just talking about Doug all night, sitting around a campfire, hanging out and we were on our way the next morning.”
Hamilton died before the Galaxy began their MLS Cup defense that season, and it was clear his passing took a toll. The bottom largely fell out that year for LA, who reached the US Open Cup final but missed the MLS playoffs entirely.
Sampson was eventually fired, and the Galaxy went on to miss the postseason in both 2007 and '08.
“If you look at what happened with our team [in 2006], I think we started off with one win in maybe our first 10 games,” Dunivant said (the Galaxy actually went 2-8-1). “It took a huge toll on us, really hit us hard and really took a long time for this organization to recover.”