El Tráfico – Western Conference Semifinal

El Clásico. Derby della Madonnina (Milan Derby). Manchester Derby. Der Klassiker. North London Derby. Old Firm Derby. El Tráfico?

This Thursday, October 20, the 17th El Tráfico will be played at the Banc of California Stadium between LA Galaxy and LAFC. It’s the 2022 Western Conference Semifinal.

This is LAFC’s second semifinal playoff match ever. Their previous one in 2019 was also against the Galaxy at the Banc of California. And, while LAFC won in 2019, they then lost the conference final against Seattle who went on to win the MLS Cup. This time, LAFC’s home record (13-2-2) is as impressive as it was in 2019 (13-3-1).

This time, like in 2019, LAFC hold the Supporters Shield. But this time, they want to finish the job and then earn the highest award, the MLS Cup. Step one will be to beat their crosstown rivals. Meanwhile, LA Galaxy have also not had a playoffs appearance since 2019. The Galaxy’s last MLS Conference Final and MLS Cup was in 2014. They have a history of dominating MLS (and thus, a level of expectation that comes with it) but a well-timed win now, and a run to the top of the Western Conference would re-energize their fans and dispel the doubts about team direction and strategy that has been plaguing them for the past 8 years.

Traditionally, the greatest of soccer rivalries are treasured for generations as a pastime. Internationally, soccer rivalries are well-established, but in MLS, they are still in their youth. MLS was born in 1995. Comparatively El Tráfico is a young rivalry measured against international counterparts – the first El Clásico was in 1902 and the Manchester Derby began in 1881. El Tráfico was born in 2018.

Few MLS rivalries boast as high ratings and fanfare as the aptly monikered El Tráfico, named by fans for the traffic that is as symbolic of Los Angeles as the Hollywood sign. There have been 16 editions, but there is little argument that the first was the best and impossible to surpass. Why? Because of the biggest names on each team, Carlos Vela (LAFC) versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy). And, because after 22 years of being the only competitive team in town (sorry, Chivas fans), LA Galaxy had a local opponent, and it was one that was marketing itself very deeply with the local community, reaching out to those who LA Galaxy had long not attempted to cater to. After all, the Galaxy didn’t need to. They had five MLS Cups to represent their past and identity. They had brought the great David Beckham to Los Angeles. And they were not accustomed to the competition the new kid on the block would bring. While, the El Tráfico record falls to the side of the Galaxy, who have won 7 in 16 with an additional 5 draws, the rivalry has grown off the pitch and within the fans of both sides.

Mike Gray (formerly LAG Confidential), one of the two soccer journalists, Alicia Rodriguez (Angels on Parade) is the other, who polled Los Angeles area MLS fans about their choice of a name before the inaugural match, recaps how it was named, even before the first match was played. Travel back to 2018. “We live in post-modern times. It was a time where the Galaxy are a team, and LAFC are an expansion team. And they’re going to play their first game. And we’re trying to decide what their name is before they even play. Don’t you think that’s weird? You’re supposed to have rivalry develop over years and then you come up with a name. As opposed to El Tráfico, where there’s a big debate about the name of it, before the first game, and then even after the game was played, there’s more debating and arguing about the name.”

True. Even after the name won over most of Los Angeles, there were vocal denials that it wouldn’t last. “I’m ending El Tráfico,” Bob Bradly, former coach of LAFC voiced. “It’s LA Clasico. L-A. La Clasico.” That name obviously didn’t stick.

“It was natural. It was fun. It wasn’t corrupted by anything,” Gray reiterates. “It started off with the fans and fed over into the players, and after a few games, it became a rivalry.”

Traditionally, three factors make rivalries truly great. Location. History. Quality of Play.

We have the location for a grand rivalry. Not only do the teams both hail from Los Angeles, the fans get to argue about what LA means – LA city, LA county, LA culture? It fuels the rivalry. Bottom line: they are both LA teams but they will continue to argue until they’re blue in the face about what LA is. There is plenty of room for both teams. And, as for history, while there wasn’t much history to speak of before, that’s something that has been growing and will continue to do so.

One thing that is almost guaranteed in El Tráfico: an abundance of goals. And one can argue that in MLS, a young soccer league, that translates into quality of play. At the least it means more popularity and marketability, something that allows the game to grow in a nation that is still learning to love the world’s most beautiful game.

The Beginning and Heyday:

March 31, 2018 was arguably the best of all of El Tráfico matches for all time. Not only was it the first match between the two sides, it marked the debut of superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, literally three days after he landed in Los Angeles. Prior to Zlatan’s entrance, Carlos Vela, winner of the 2019 MLS Golden Boot, was leading his side with a brace, and while the Galaxy were beginning to fight back, they were trailing 2-3 before the superstar struck. Ibrahimovic’s own brace brought the Galaxy out on top 4-3. His second strike from 40 yards out remains one of MLS’ best goals in history. The Galaxy became the second team in MLS history to come back from a 3-goal deficit to win in regulation time. History had been made. “The fans wanted Zlatan and I gave them Zlatan, he emphatically proclaimed afterwards.

Throughout Zlatan’s tenure at LA Galaxy, each El Tráfico produced two predictable results – goals and fans misbehaving. There were 23 goals total across 6 matches (18 from Vela and Ibrahimovic), the last of them being the 2019 MLS Western Conference Semifinal match that LAFC won 5-3 with Zlatan contributing his final goal in MLS.  

The Lull:

In 2020, even with Vela opting out of playing in the MLS is Back tournament and LA Galaxy’s newest superstar, Javier Hernández (Chicharito) injured, the goals kept coming in the teams’ first match of the year. LAFC won 6–2, a new record for largest margin of victory in El Tráfico. As for the predicted clash and goal-fest between former teammates and lasting friends, Chicharito and Vela, we had to wait until 2022 for that to manifest. Vela suffered an injury-riddled two years and only played 1267 minutes. Chicharito missed 12 of LA Galaxy’s games in 2021. Throughout the 2020 and 2021 seasons, without their big stars to dominate headlines and goals, LAFC and LA Galaxy split their games with 2 wins for LAFC (both in 2020), 3 for LA Galaxy and 2 draws. But the goals never stopped. In total El Tráfico yielded 26 goals across the 7 matches.

The Fans:

The best facet of any rivalry, the factor that keeps the rivalry flowing through lulls in stars and trophies, the component that gets passed on from generation to generation, is fandom. Supporter groups build lasting community bonds and tie teams to their fans in the off-season. They generate revenue. Sports would not exist as we know it without them. And, while this is all good, it also has a dark side. El Tráfico would not be so popular without a little misbehaving by its fans on both sides. From defaced murals, to brawls, seats being vandalized and game ejections, nearly each match between the two teams has had some sort of fan altercation. Yet, these extreme fans are in the minority.

Present Day:

After over a year, LAFC won a match against the Galaxy. The Galaxy had dominated the 2021 El Tráfico iterations, and when July 8, 2022 ended in a 3-2 win for LAFC at the Banc of California, as Kellyn Acosta put it, “[There was] a lot of relief, to finally get that monkey off our back.”

After their last El Tráfico, LAFC, almost alone at the top of the Western Conference, were expected to soar even higher after their summer signings of Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, yet since the two joined, the Supporters Shield winning team have not coalesced into the roster as consistent leaders on the field. LAFC won the Supporters Shield but they needed Philadelphia Union to lose to Toronto in order to do so. Bale, who had set out to prove his physical fitness level to compete in the World Cup with Wales this November, has not quite hit his stride as an attacker for LAFC. He’s played under 400 minutes across 12 matches, scored twice with 15 shots on goal, and hasn’t proved to be much of an attacking threat. Meanwhile, Chiellini has played over 700 minutes in 11 matches. Most disappointingly, LAFC won just three of their last 10 matches of the regular season. On the other side, LA Galaxy won 4 of their final 10 matches (4 others were draws), they landed Riqui Puig who is MLS’ star summer signing who locks down their midfield and Chicharito has a laudable 18 regular season goals (Vela has 12 this year).

It’s only been four years, but between the star power (Chicharito and Vela are both playing, but both teams are stacked with more superstar talent adding depth), the guaranteed goals, the fans who are starving for a postseason reward, a high-stakes of a Conference Semifinal rematch, the latest surge in LA Galaxy’s ranking from right below the playoff line to 4th in the standings, and the late season drop in LAFC’s rate of wins, the only thing guaranteed this Thursday is a tight and dramatic match. As LAFC’s head coach Steve Cherundolo put it, “I see a tight game, much like what we’ve seen in the past.”

Also playing a role in this Thursday’s match is the rest factor. Usually in MLS, having rest days means you have a better chance of success. Given the rigorous regular season travel schedule and the physical toll it takes on players over time, LAFC’s 10-day rest (they had a round one bye) should give the home team a greater edge. Yet, there’s also something to be said about a team that is on an upward trajectory, first fighting to get into the playoffs, then pushing further to stay alive in the all-or-nothing round one of the MLS playoffs. LA Galaxy are that team. The dark horse that was discounted in the summer quietly. LAFC reached the top early and merely had to stay put. Lately, their attacking style of soccer hasn’t yielded the same number of goals as it had in previous years. Accuracy early on, and capitalizing on those chances they will likely have in the beginning stages of the match this Thursday will likely come to matter more than late goals.

Then again, “but of course we know in this league all the things you did in the past don’t matter now,” Carlos Vela, reminds us all, the past doesn’t predict the future in the playoffs.

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