Unsteady LAFC hosts soaring LA Galaxy in year’s first El Tráfico

The first El Tráfico of the year is here, and many factors make it different than any of the 21 previous editions of the touted rivalry. LA Galaxy are at the top of the MLS table, while LAFC are spinning their wheels searching for a solution to their roster turnover.

LOS ANGELES — This isn’t the El Tráfico you were expecting.

One of the fiercest rivalries in the MLS — LAFC and LA Galaxy  — resumes at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at BMO Stadium after these crosstown rivals have undergone dramatic changes in their overall makeup since last season.

The five-time MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy are at the top of the league, after years of instability since their last title in 2014 and a revolving door of stars, from an effusive Zlatan Ibrahimović to an underwhelming Steven Gerrard.

Although they began to resurface as promising contenders with the departure of Chris Klein after a decade of misguided leadership, 2023 could be considered a forgettable season (8-14-12).

They have opened this season at the top of the Supporters Shield heading into Week 7. No team besides Inter Miami (with its Barca quartet of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba) has scored more goals.

LA Galaxy signed fan favorite Joseph Paintsil, young designated player Gabriel Pec, J1 League and Emperor’s Cup trophy winner Miki Yamane, and surprisingly acquired MLS Cup winner John McCarthy from LAFC.

This season has brought a level of offensive cohesion to the Galaxy’s attacking style that hasn’t been seen in years, including:

  • The creative pitch intelligence of Riqui Puig.
  • Support from the flashes of energetic and clever footwork of Paintsil as he scored two goals and two assists in his six appearances.
  • The leadership of Dejan Joveljić who, as the current club veteran in his fourth season, rallied to score in five-straight matches.
  •  And help from the former Vasco da Gama attacker Pec, whose first MLS goal secured three points against the Seattle Sounders.

In stark contrast to the empty home stands that the Galaxy saw last season, the seats are full, the music is booming and fans are charged with a reborn enthusiasm.

On the other side, LAFC’s future is foggy as the 2022 MLS Cup Champions are struggling to retain a level of cohesion without first franchise signing Carlos Vela, who remains a free agent with less than three weeks left in the MLS primary transfer window. Vela not only served as LAFC’s leader since its inception, he also was considered an LA Galaxy killer, scoring 12 goals in their 21 previous meetings, the most of any player involved in the derby.

Few will forget the first time Vela and Zlatan faced off in the debut of the Swedish international. The match ended with a stunning 40-yard equalizer and stoppage time winning goal for the Galaxy.

Vela made made his own mark in the series last April, scoring two goals in a 3-2 victory that kept LAFC unbeaten and keep the Galaxy winless.  LAFC is in ninth place in the Western Conference as Denís Bouanga has scored two goals in his first six matches.

LAFC is still dealing with its own own roster turnover after the 2023 season ended with three tournament final losses:

  • McCarthy was traded to the Galaxy.
  • Maxime Crépeau was released to ensure the signing of FIFA World Cup winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
  • Seasoned mentor Giorgio Chiellini retired and joined the coaching staff.
  • And midfielder Eduard Atuesta returned this season after a two-year spell with Brazilian club Palmeiras. His impact already is resulting in one of the highest successful pass percentages.

LAFC has yet to find their stability in their young and eager legs. They’re searching for answers with stopgaps, signing Kei Kamara to short-term contract and waiting for the summer transfer window to find a deeper solution like Olivier Giroud.

On the eve of one of the most contentious rivalries, LAFC are functioning without an identity and bench depth. Meanwhile, LA Galaxy are eager to capitalize on the moment. 

The gulf between the clubs is as wide as it always manages to be.

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