The LA Galaxy haven’t achieved much over the past few years, not by the standards of their illustrious 26 years of history. Harsh, maybe, but true.
One thing they have won is El Trafico.
These are the stats: The Galaxy are 4-3-3 over the brief all-time history of this rivalry. Even if you add extra weight to LAFC’s win in their only postseason meeting to date, it’s not hard to see how the series has cut curiously against the two clubs’ wider fortunes overall. The OGs in Carson have failed to qualify for three of the last four editions of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs while the Black-&-Gold upstarts, who debuted in 2018, have already won a Supporters’ Shield and reached a Concacaf Champions League final.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his nine El Trafico goals are probably the single biggest reason for that. The big Swede authoritatively stamped his domineering personality on this crosstown clash practically from the minute he stepped off the plane back in March of 2018, even outshining the excellent Carlos Vela. But Zlatan & Co. could never sustain that rivalry magic far enough into the rest of their seasons to stave off the wider drift that ended the coaching tenures of Sigi Schmid and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
That, in essence, is the stage onto which Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez steps ahead of his first-ever Trafico, Saturday’s league matchup at Dignity Health Sports Park (8pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes).
Last year was a nightmare for millions of us around the world, Hernandez included. He missed out on all of his team’s 2020 meetings with LAFC, four among many games lost to injury. The pandemic ambushed him in an awkward phase of life transition, separated him from his family for long periods and left him, in his own words, at “rock bottom.” As his form and fitness deserted him, he also lost his beloved grandfather and predecessor in Chivas and El Tri stardom, Tomas Balcazar, who passed away last April.
So Chicharito went back to the drawing board in all contexts over the winter. He’s emerged to make a fresh and productive start to this season, a process he’s been strikingly transparent about, openly embracing emotional health and self-help concepts like few athletes of his stature. It’s dovetailed with a comparable process around the Galaxy as a whole since the arrival of new coach Greg Vanney.
“We don’t just want to scrap everybody and start over. And that’s the same elsewhere in the club,” Vanney told The Athletic. “There’s a lot of good pieces in different departments that were working sort of dysfunctionally that need to be tied together.”
As the goals returned for Chicharito, the peso de marcar, or “weight of scoring,” in the words of his LA and Mexico teammate Jona dos Santos, was lifted from his shoulders, a particular form of professional liberation. Their Galaxy colleagues seem to be taking their cues in kind.
It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic contrast to the bluff and bravado of Ibrahimovic, who both sincerely and winkingly frames himself as a sort of ubermensch and even now remains a topic in the leadup to Saturday.
“The young guys [defecated] their pants when they had to be in the team with Zlatan,” dos Santos said in Spanish with a laugh during Thursday’s media availability. “You knew they would get nervous that if they missed a pass, he was going to scold them, and it made it difficult for them. Chicharito is more positive. Zlatan was a little more negative, though he did it in the sense of helping and improving his teammates.
“This year, what has helped us is to be positive in all senses, helping each other. [Hernandez] is being a leader on and off the field. It is the best way to make young players grow – we have so many.”
For all his exploits, the demanding Ibra couldn’t singlehandedly drag his club out of their underachievement, though he sure was a useful crutch when the curtains lifted on El Trafico’s spectacle. Which prompts the question: As confident as the Galaxy are that Chicharito can power big-picture solutions, is he ready to seize the spotlight in their highest-profile moment, the games that set the tone around town?
“Always you want to win any Trafico or clasico or derby that you're playing,” he said on Thursday. “So yeah, it's going to be a very nice, very important weekend for the city, especially for us because we have a nice opportunity to face one of the best teams in MLS again and try to show the best version of ourselves.”
I’m not sure The Little Pea would really accept the underlying premise as most of us would conceive of it, though.
“When I score a hat trick I'm not a better human, and when I don't score a hat trick I'm not the worst human, I’m still Javier, I'm still Chicharito trying to do the best,” he said later. “And we need to get in mind that that's the nice thing about sports, that even though in a way we want to, like, set a goal of the championship, probably win each match and be close to perfection and stuff like that, perfection doesn't exist.”
It’s fun to ponder whether he’s pushing back against the concept of the leading role entirely, or just insisting on his own terms of engagement. Last month Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus wrote a very smart piece comparing Hernandez with Landon Donovan, another Galaxy icon with a nuanced emotional intelligence, and it’s a timely read ahead of El Trafico. Both are transcendent talents who learned that Zlatan’s way wasn’t really an option for them – that they needed their teammates to maximize their potential just as much as vice versa.
Vela’s status is questionable heading into this first Galaxy-LAFC clash of 2021, dimming the head-to-head narrative that we will no doubt be inundated with if and when both he and his friend Chicharito are fit and available for future editions. That for now effectively centers our collective gaze on Hernandez, an entertaining proposition unto itself for a sunny spring afternoon in SoCal.
May he, his teammates and LAFC all summon their best selves for the occasion.