If anyone doubted that Zlatan Ibrahimović would make his mark in Major League Soccer, it took him just 19 minutes to prove them wrong. Having come off the bench in the 71st minute with his new side LA Galaxy 3-1 down against Los Angeles FC, his mere presence opened up space for his new team mate Chris Pontius to pull one back. Then the Swede took matters into his own hands. With 77 minutes on the clock he got on the end of a defensive header which landed about 40 yards from the LAFC goal, an area seemingly too far out for even him to cause any harm; that wasn’t the case though as he let the ball bounce before smashing it first time over Tyler Miller’s outstretched fingers.
Images of his extraordinary strike and shirtless celebrations in front of his adoring fans have been played over and over again on social media, going viral in minutes. That goal also announced Zlatan to MLS (or the other way round as he put it) as well as introducing the El Trafico derby between LA Galaxy and LAFC to the world. The sense of delirium was heightened even further when he got on the end of an Ashley Cole cross to head home the winner in injury time. He had completely turned the game on its head on his debut and won the derby for his side, who had been 3-0 down at one stage. What made this even more significant is that this was the first ever match between the two sides.
This was just the third MLS match in LAFC’s history, who had beaten Seattle Sounders and thrashed Real Salt Lake 5-1 before that. The rivalry was – and still is – in its infancy, but was nevertheless incredibly important to everyone involved. There is always a fear regarding new local derbies that they can feel forced and contrived, but that was never going to be the case here. Being one of just two crosstown rivalries in MLS (alongside the Hudson River Derby in New York) each club represents a very different side of Los Angeles, something which allowed the rivalry to naturally develop.
LA Galaxy are often associated with Hollywood and the star studded nature of Los Angeles, which has made it so famous around the world. With former players including David Beckham (MLS’ original big name signing), Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and one of the most high-profile USMNT players of all time in Landon Donovan. They’ve also had big names including Ruud Gullit as their head coach down the years. This list of stars doesn’t even feature players such as Robbie Keane, who made a large impact during his time in MLS, showing the level of star power they’ve been able to recruit, especially after Beckham’s transfer.
As well as Ibrahimović, the club’s current roster features Jonathon and Giovani Dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini. Their recruitment has brought them success down the years, as well as the limelight, as they’ve won five MLS Cups, four Supporters Shields and two U.S. Open Cups. The accolade they’ll be proudest of is that in 2000 they were victorious in the CONCACAF Champions League – no MLS team has repeated that achievement since.
Before moving onto LAFC, it is first important to look at Chivas USA, the club who were eventually replaced by the team adorning black and gold. Chivas also hailed from LA and had an intense rivalry with LA Galaxy before ceasing to exist in 2014. They shared common ownership and branding with Liga MX club Guadalajara, even sporting the same badge design and kit colours. With the Mexican connection, the majority of the club’s fan base was made up of the Latin population in Los Angeles.
LAFC are not a continuation of Chivas, but there are certainly similarities between the two. Many of Chivas’ supporters have joined the ranks supporting LAFC, forming The 3252 supporters group. Though not all supporters were with Chivas, the clear link between the old and new club has led Galaxy supporters to taunt them with the dismissive title of Chivas 2.0. The Latin flavour has also been replicated on the pitch. Their biggest signing to date is Carlos Vela, one of Mexico’s most prominent players in recent years, who could have easily continued to play his club football at a high level in Europe had he chosen to.
His main partner in crime this season has been 20-year-old Urugayan Diego Rossi, with the club also having players from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras. Many clubs will have had a fear about gaining support in a city which already houses one of the country’s biggest and most famous football clubs, but the sense of identity they had from the beginning allowed them to thrive and harbour support immediately. Like the Galaxy, they have some star power of their own; Will Ferrell is amongst the club’s owners and has attended plenty of games, while one of the most famous and admired American coaches, Bob Bradley, has been leading the team.
The stadiums the two clubs play at also help to distinguish the sense of identity that each has. Since 2003 LA Galaxy have been playing at the multi-use arena, the StubHub Center, in the affluent Carson area, situated a little over 10 miles from Downtown Los Angeles. On the other hand, LAFC play their home matches at the Banc of California Stadium, which was opened for them this year. Their arena sits in the Exposition Park district, in the very centre of the city, in an area which has a high concentration of ethnic minorities, with Latin and African Americans being the most prevalent; something which is celebrated throughout the club and its fan base. With the two teams coming from different areas in the city, there is an eagerness from both sides to represent their home patch.
Zlatan Ibrahimović’s heroics may have been what announced this rivalry to the world, but there had been rumblings before a single ball had been kicked in that match. The clubs’ youth teams had already faced off, but the clearest sign of the desire to get one up on the other club came away from the pitch, as each side looked to make their imprint on enemy territory. First of all, LAFC colours were painted on an LA Galaxy mural and billboard, which Galaxy’s fans retaliated against by vandalising a mural which read LA in the gold typeface of the club, turning it into a sign saying ‘GALAXY’. The club had also tried to buy billboard space outside LAFC’s stadium, though they weren’t able to do so and those spaces now adorn black and gold – out of reach for anyone with a desire to change that.
The clubs’ supporters have been dealing each other blows off the pitch, with both verbal encounters and visual ones. However, since that first game, the sides haven’t been able to do so on the pitch. Of the three games played between the two, that 4-3 win to Galaxy is the only victory, as the others ended 2-2 and 1-1. Having not been able to beat their rivals in three attempts, especially after being 3-0 up in the first face off, will frustrate LAFC fans and it is safe to say that in this aspect LA Galaxy have the bragging rights.
However, one thing that LAFC have over their city rivals for now is that they made this season’s Play Offs. In their inaugural MLS campaign LAFC finished third in the Western Conference, behind Sporting Kansas City and Seattle Sounders who got an automatic place in the Quarter Finals. They had secured their place in the Play Offs with plenty of time to spare, but on the last day LA Galaxy had to win to earn their place. Real Salt Lake – who occupied the sixth and final place – had played all of their games already and were one point ahead of the Galaxy with superior goal difference. Win against Houston Dynamo (who had nothing to play for) and they were in, lose or draw and their season was coming to a premature end.
Within half an hour a brace from Ola Kamara had put the men in white 2-0 up and seemingly into the Play Offs. However, with ten minutes left on the clock they found themselves 3-2 down after a well worked Rommel Quioto goal, a penalty which was clumsily given away by Allesandrini and a tap in for Mauro Manotas who’d also converted the spot kick. It was slack defending that had summarised their season which lost them the game and their chance to add another MLS Cup trophy to their honours list. It also will have brought plenty of satisfaction to LAFC fans, though they could have wanted the opportunity to dump their rivals out themselves.
In the end the 3252 weren’t able to laugh too much, as the team that benefited from LA Galaxy’s meltdown, Real Salt Lake, were the ones to dump their side out of the Play Offs. Two goals and an assist from Damir Kreilach countered goals from LAFC’s Danilo Silva and substitute Christian Ramirez. Thanks to the Croatian’s exploits Galaxy fans are still able to say they’re the only side in Los Angeles to lift the MLS Cup, as Chivas hadn’t managed to do so either.
Both sides will be looking ahead to next season now. With the draft and transfer window an opportunity to build on what they already have, it will be interesting to see how these two clubs go about their business. LAFC have built a young, exciting and vibrant squad which mirrors the area they are based in, so will likely continue in that mould. Many will be waiting to see whether LA Galaxy will be able to add another big name to the ones they already have at their disposal. The downside to their pursuit of star men is that they can at times be prized back to European football, with there being rumours that Ibrahimović could be heading back to Serie A. If that is to happen then they will surely struggle to replace him and the goal scoring exploits which saw him get 22 goals in his maiden campaign and win the MLS Newcomer of the Year honour.
Major League Soccer’s newest derby is arguably the league’s most unique and important. No rivalry in the league sees two teams who are so close geographically have such differing ideologies. In its very first match it provided one of US football’s most memorable moments, but aside from that there is a clear and organic rivalry between the clubs and their fans, something which some MLS teams haven’t been involved in down the years. There aren’t many places in USA where people have a genuine choice regarding the MLS team they support in their home city, but in Los Angeles they truly do now. As LAFC continue their MLS tenure they are only going to grow; the El Trafico will flourish with them.