A fierce cross-city rivalry is brewing off Highway 110 in Los Angeles that holds up to any of the classic derbies played in world football — at least in terms of fan support and personal grudges on the pitch.
Los Angeles Football Club beat the LA Galaxy 5-3 to advance to the Western Conference Final of the MLS Cup Playoffs on Thursday in front of a raucous home crowd who chanted and banged drums well beyond the final whistle.
LAFC’s Mexican star Carlos Vela continued his dominant form, scoring the club’s first two goals and assisting on the third. Norwegian teammate Adama Diomande chipped in the fourth and fifth goals to seal the win.
“All the games (in the derby) have been on fire, and I’m just happy to win that match,” Diomande said. “It’s been ghosting us for a long time, but now when it really mattered we were up for it … everyone was behind us to be the best team in Los Angeles.”
It was LAFC’s first-ever victory over their heated rivals in six tries. Separated by just 11 miles of congested highway, the derby became known as “El Trafico” shortly after LAFC kicked off its inaugural season last year.
LAFC’s veteran coach Bob Bradley, fresh off his second MLS Coach of the Year award, gave credit to his players for not backing down after squandering the two-goal lead early.
“We all knew that it was our time. To a man everybody said great, we want the Galaxy; it had to be the Galaxy,” said Bradley, who in his four decades of coaching has helmed the US and Egyptian national squads as well as Swansea City.
Zlatan Ibrahimović — who has fanned the flames of El Trafico since his first MLS match — scored the tying goal in the 55th minute and notched an assist in what may have been his final match for the Galaxy. As the Swede exited the pitch after the final whistle he grabbed his crotch in response to taunts from an LAFC fan.
Though he played brilliantly in his two seasons in Los Angeles, Ibrahimović is on an expiring contract, and has reportedly attracted interest from Italian club Napoli. “It could be, let’s see what happens” he said of the possibility of leaving the Galaxy.
The outspoken Swede, who has declared himself as the best player in the league “by far,” could not resist a dig at his opponents on the way out: “(If I stay) then MLS is good, because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”
‘El Trafico’ history
Ibrahimovic made his Galaxy debut in the first-ever meeting between the clubs in March, 2018, coming on in the 71st minute with his team down 3-2. He quickly tied the match with a long-range wonder goal, then sealed the win with a header in extra-time.
“I needed a moment like that,” Ibrahimović told CNN earlier this year of his first strike. “At that moment I said I still (have something) to prove. It’s not over. Scoring that goal is exactly the answer I wanted: I was alive.”
But comparisons to Vela only irked Ibrahimović, who would remember his counterpart as a bit player at Arsenal and a fixture at Real Sociedad whle he was collecting trophies at Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.
Asked to compare himself to Vela earlier this year, Ibrahimović scoffed, “He’s playing in MLS and he’s in his prime. Where was I at 29? Big difference.”
No matter that Vela was on his way to completing the greatest individual effort over a season in MLS history, netting a record 34 goals and a marking a combined goals-assist record of 49.
At 38 and a step off his prime, Ibrahimović tallied his own wonder season, finishing with a club record 30 goals.
In July, his LAFC beef extended further after he elbowed defender Mohamed El-Munir, causing a facial fracture that required surgery, before having words with goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel.
“Please do not offend me,” the Swede added after that match when asked again about Vela. “I don’t need to prove nothing … I have a lot of respect for Vela, he’s a good player, but you did one mistake, you compared him with me, that was your biggest mistake.”
Vela, who is mostly soft spoken, weighed in shortly after. “Look, to compare me to Zlatan overall is an insult to him,” he said. “But right now, in terms of stats and regardless of age. I’m better than Zlatan.”
The rise of the 3252
In just its second year, LAFC has proved to be a model of success in terms of wins and popularity.
Last month the club secured its first major trophy, lifting the 2019 Supporter’s Shield for the highest point total in the regular season, the MLS’s version of winning the league. Its 72 points was an MLS record, besting the 71 points achieved by the New York Red Bulls last season.
LAFC’s ownership consortium may provide a clue of how that success developed. Spotted at the match hunched together were comedian Will Ferrell, LA Lakers legend Magic Johnson and motivational speaker Tony Robbins — all of whom are listed among the shareholder of the club, along with Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai and Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan.
Bradley will enjoy home field advantage at the daunting home ground of Banc of California Stadium again on Tuesday to face the Seattle Sounders for a chance to play in the MLS Cup Final.
The coach is aware of how important his fans are to his success.
“I believe in the culture of our club,” he said, acknowledging the European ultra-like cheering section known as 3252. The supporter’s union, which holds board elections yearly, is named after the number of spaces it holds in the stadium’s North Stand.
“All our incredible supporters show up and sing, and go from start to finish,” Bradley said after the match. “Our supporters are diehards. They also see heart, they see in the performance if our players have commitment and courage.”
Fifty-nine-year-old jeweler Jaime Calvillo grew up playing the native Huehuetl drums in Guadalajara, Mexico, and is a leader of the 3252 drum section.
On Tuesday he arrived three and a half hours before kickoff to get noisy. Ten minutes into the match, one of his drums broke. By the end of day, he had a blister on his thumb the size of a quarter.
Before LAFC’s home stadium was completed, he was invited in to test the acoustic of the stadium, with the architects listening for volume on the other side of the stands.
“I played like there was no tomorrow,” he recalled.
Season ticketholder Brian Straca shows up in a bird costume to every game, commemorating LAFC’s falcon mascot that swirls around the stadium before every kickoff looking for prey.
The 36-year-old high school principal said he never considered supporting the Galaxy, finding the club based in Carson, California “unwelcoming.”
“LAFC has done everything right to build an authentic fanbase in Los Angeles,” he said. “They reach out to literally every neighborhood across the city. We all have a part of the club, that’s the greatest thing about this.”
“This has revived soccer in the city of Los Angeles,” he added. “This is what every new club should model itself after.”
Nearly two hours after the final whistle had blown and the players and coaches had left the building, fans were still celebrating outside the stadium’s gates in downtown Los Angeles.
One wearing the ubiquitous black jersey of LAFC whizzed past in a motorized scooter, chanting a slogan repeatedly.
“Where is Zlatan?” he asked.