For the first time in the derby’s short history, the second-year side topped their local rivals in the most meaningful match to date
Perhaps the most anticipated clash in MLS history took place on Thursday night just several miles from the Hollywood sign.
It was billed as a blockbuster: big stars, big action, big stakes. This is the MLS playoffs, after all. Regular season achievements are one thing, but this is something entirely different.
Throughout the regular season, Los Angeles FC built themselves into something great. They smashed records, both as a team and players individually. They asserted themselves as perhaps the best team in MLS history, taking down virtually all comers. Virtually.
The one team that had stood in their way, the one thorn in their side, was the team they knew best of all. They hadn’t beaten their local rival LA Galaxy. They hadn’t won El Trafico, earned bragging rights. They hadn’t stood tall and claimed Los Angeles as their own.
On a loud, raucous night at Banc of California Stadium, the blockbuster lived up to the hype. Like all that came before it, this version of El Trafico had it all. It had goals from Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two players that have dominated this league like few we’ve ever seen. It had controversy, too. And, for the first time, it had LAFC emerge victors, a statement made.
It was a match billed by many as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, matches in MLS history. For years, MLS had been looking for a rivalry that truly transcended North American borders and, El Trafico has been it. Thursday night’s derby immediately felt like it had a big game feel. Ticket prices for the match were through the roof, and those that did get in the building created quite an atmosphere. There was no uneasy start or feeling out period. This was going to be a dogfight.
The hosts struck first through, who else, Vela. It came in the 16th minute, when the Mexican star was on the receiving end of a simple ball from Diego Rossi and found himself in space after a magnificent first touch inside. All that was left was the finish, 1-0. The goal sent Banc of California Stadium into a frenzy while seeing Vela take a step ahead of crosstown rival Ibrahimovic, becoming the only player to score in each Trafico to date.
As clean as his first goal of the night was, Vela’s second was as controversial as they come. LAFC winger Brian Rodriguez appeared to be offside on the initial ball in before squaring it to Vela for little more than a tap-in. VAR was not consulted, and LAFC seemed to have taken control in the 40th minute.
But, by the 41st minute, we were given a reminder: there’s no such thing as taking control in this rivalry. Less than a minute after LAFC celebrated what could have been a game-clinching goal, it was the Galaxy’s turn. Moments after seeing his rival score his second of the night, Ibrahimovic created a goal of his own, playing in Cristian Pavon to bring the score to 2-1 to give new life to a game that already had plenty of it.
Ibrahimovic then scored one of his own, but the finish was more of a gift than another Zlatan stunner. The Swedish star rifled a shot straight at Tyler Miller, one that the goalkeeper would save nine times out of 10, but it was this 10th time where he let it slip through his arms and into the back of the net.
The pendulum swung again thanks to Vela of course. Fouled several times atop the box, Vela took full advantage of the referee’s advantage, rising to his feet before sliding a pass to Rossi for the goal to make it 3-2 in the 66th minute. Both Vela and Ibrahimovic declined to speak with the media this week, although the two have had plenty to say about each other all year. On this day, though, it was Vela who won out.
Ibrahimovic is certainly no Fiat, but Vela was every bit the Ferrari that has dominated MLS since the moment he stepped foot in Los Angeles.
But, while the stars played their part in the beginning and middle acts, it was the role players that directed the finale. Adama Diomande, a second-half substitute, scored two goals with a Rolf Feltscher goal for the Galaxy sandwiched in the middle. Felscher’s goal, which made it 4-3, brought a bit of excitement, but Diomande was done with the drama as he scored the knockout blow 80 minutes in. Finally.
When the dust settled, the 5-3 scoreline matched the record for the highest-scoring MLS playoff match. Vela played a part in three, Ibrahimovic two and, for the first time in the rivalry’s short history, LAFC left El Trafico with their hands raised.
It was a momentous moment for a club that already has generated plenty in their short history. They ran rampant through MLS, smashing records all season long. But, throughout the club’s run, one question remained: could they beat the Galaxy?
They did, and on the biggest stage. The five results that came before it? The unbeaten Galaxy run? Those don’t matter anymore. Zlatan may be a lion, but LAFC have proven they are kings of the jungle. MLS bragging rights are earned when the weather gets colder, the stakes get higher and an MLS Cup is on the line.
But the road doesn’t get easier. The three teams remaining? Each of the last three MLS Cup champions. A date with the Seattle Sounders awaits and, if that goes to play, a clash with either Atlanta United and Toronto FC. One foe vanquished, but this isn’t over yet.
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In the city of angels, LAFC is king. The next conquest? The rest of MLS.