LOS ANGELES — Saturday marks the 21st edition of El Tráfico and the fourth crosstown battle between LAFC and the LA Galaxy this season.
In fact, no two MLS teams have played against each other more in that span. It’s a rivalry known across the league as much for the fever-pitched and evenly-matched competition on the pitch, as for the fan-driven emotional battle of words and sometimes, even fists.
The clubs know each other better than any other teams in the league but in this latest version, the divisive nature of the derby is marked also by two very different paths they’re on.
LAFC’s Rollercoaster Season
The competitive year began in March with a celebratory and anticipatory sensation as the confetti from a Championship 2022 parade was still fresh in the minds of LAFC. The voice of captain Carlos Vela hoisting the MLS Cup echoed in the ears of all, “When you get a trophy, you want more!” Their eyes were focused upon a possibility of 6 unique trophies (Supporters Shield, MLS Cup, Concacaf Champions League (CCL), Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup).
The matches came fast and furiously, the pace ever-increasing as LAFC started their March off with CCL and MLS regular season matches occurring weekly. Six matches in March. Seven in April. Then, suddenly there were eight in May with the addition of the U.S. Open Cup.
LAFC were already flung into a deep run in the CCL, looking more and more like the winning candidates that the Seattle Sounders were the year before. All efforts were laser-fixated on their matches against Club León in the final. But it proved to be too much for a team that simply did not have a true number 9 facing a team that had played a full but disappointing season and were hungry for redemption. León’s win meant Liga MX clubs won 17 of the last 18 CCL championships. More importantly, it was also the second time in four years LAFC fell in the CCL final.
The pain reverberated well beyond mere physical exhaustion. The toll it took on them was instant – the first telling sign was 3 straight winless and scoreless matches in MLS regular season. But then it became clear their offensive bite had been tamed. Before the CCL final, they’d scored 41 goals scored in 20 games across all competitions, and since 28 goals in the last 18 games.
There have been glimmers of hope that their direct, free-flowing style can return. After a 17-day break, they scored 13 goals in 3 matches in the Leagues Cup, more than they’d scored in 3-straight matches prior to that this year. Supercharged Denís Bouanga notched six goals in the 255 Leagues Cup minutes he played.
Albeit after that, LAFC have lost three of their four ensuing MLS matches, and have yet to fully gel as a cohesive team with their summer signings not fully integrated into the lineup, with the return of crucial international players (including Bouanga), and a week since their 2-0 defeat at Portland, the Black and Gold, who remain in the top four of the Western Conference, are still positive about their chances in the remaining seven regular season matches.
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo was eager to point out the positive aspects of the year. “The amount of big chances we’re creating we’re creating in moments when things are flowing has increased, our goals in transition has increased (as opposed to last year), the amount of big chances we’re created has increased. So there’s been a lot of positives. We started the season in a great way.”
“For a club with big ambitions it’s easy to focus on the negative,” he concluded in his pre-match presser on Thursday. Considering how Inter Miami, currently well below the playoffs line is being touted as a Cup favorite by many around the world, LAFC certainly have more than a fighting chance for the league title.
The first and most effective way to send that message to the rest of the league is to beat their most contentious rivals.
Galaxy’s Reinforcements and Recent Form
With just seven matches remaining, every match day is an important one as the Galaxy (7-9-10) currently sit four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
After a rocky start to the season, the Galaxy have been trying to churn out points just to stay in the chase for a playoff spot, but the team has remained unbeaten in the last four matches since returning to MLS play, winning two and drawing the others, following an early exit from the Leagues Cup.
The Galaxy have managed to win two of three meetings across all competitions against LAFC this year, but things have changed since the last time these clubs met, a 2-1 Galaxy victory over LAFC, in front of a MLS single-match attendance record of 82,110, at the Rose Bowl on the 4th of July.
Look for winger and former USMNT standout Tyler Boyd, who has scored in his last two matchups against LAFC, to be active up top for the Galaxy.
“His proactive running ahead of the pass is what gives teams a lot of trouble,” Vanney said about Boyd. “When he’s making the right runs, at the right time, through the right channels, up the right seams, he’s a handful. He creates some space for himself like he did in the Rose Bowl.”
Boyd is looking forward to facing the Galaxy’s “biggest rival” as he called it.
“Regardless of the points, it’s super important,” Boyd said. “The LA rivalry is huge. It’s important that we get the 3 points but the derby game is an exciting one.”
About a month after the Galaxy’s most recent win over LAFC, the G’s added some reinforcements during the August transfer window, despite being under a transfer ban due to “violating salary budget and roster guidelines during the 2019 season,” according to the MLS.
The ban meant the Galaxy could not sign a player from abroad or free agents that didn’t most recently play in the United States or Canada.
LA was able to capitalize on this loophole by trading midfielder Memo Rodriguez and general allocation money to Austin FC for winger Diego Fagundez.
The Galaxy didn’t stop there, as the team added midfielder Edwin Cerrillo from FC Dallas, also in exchange for general allocation money and traded for Michael Barrios from the Colorado Rapids in exchange for LA’s first-round pick in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft.
The Galaxy followed that up by adding Japanese international centerback Maya Yoshida and English international striker Billy Sharp, who were free agents at the time and play positions of need for LA.
The lads have told me it’s hostile, which I quite likeBilly Sharp on playing in his first El Tráfico
The newest members of the Galaxy will be taking part in their first El Tráfico, with Sharp particularly looking forward to the intensity that comes with a derby.
“The lads have told me it’s hostile, which I quite like,” Sharp said after the Galaxy’s most recent match against St. Louis City. “Hopefully we can get under the fingernails of their fans and we can catch the right hand from the start.”
The recent additions have rejuvenated the Galaxy and the team’s captain, Riqui Puig, has reaped the benefits from having more freedom in the midfield.
In the seven matches since scoring a goal and adding an assist against LAFC in July, Puig ranks third in MLS with eight goal contributions, knocking in five goals along with three assists.
Puig’s fitness could be something to keep an eye on and the G’s could have to look for offense elsewhere against LAFC. Puig was nursing a minor lower body injury that kept him out of training leading up to the St. Louis City match, but has since returned to training this week, according to Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney.
Vanney and the Galaxy know the task at hand all too well, but the stakes are much higher than they were the first three times the club faced LAFC this season.
“I don’t think there will be a ton of surprises,” Vanney said.” “It’ll be intriguing, a lot on the line as the games get closer to the end of the season and each team sees where they are in the standings or what they need out of this game, then it has a little bit more emotion and it makes it a little more exciting.”
Kickoff is set for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at BMO Stadium and the match can be streamed on Apple TV through the MLS Season Pass.
The Sporting Tribune’s Chandrima Chaterjee contributed to this article.