National Writer: Charles Boehm

Chicharito vs. Carlitos: Finally, old friends Hernandez, Vela to face off in El Trafico on FOX

For more than two years running, a global pandemic has played tricks on our perceptions of time. Some weeks have felt like years, some months like hours. And so it seems again when contemplating the MLS tenures of Carlos Vela and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.

Has LAFC’s attacking luminary and foundational piece really been here four-plus years already? How did Chicharito’s time with the LA Galaxy fly by so quickly? Is it really possible that this illustrious Mexican duo still has yet to meet in face-to-face competition on this continent – have never once locked horns in El Trafico, the Southern California derby that dominates the Week 6 slate this Saturday (7:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes)?

It’s true. Even during their stints in Europe, their teams faced off in UEFA Champions League a few times, but that’s about it. That adds a surreal quality to this moment in the context of the two stars’ long friendship, which dates all the way back to adolescence, when they toiled together in the academy at Liga MX's Chivas Guadalajara:

This image isn’t that old, but it might as well be a cracked, sepia-toned heirloom. It evokes long journeys, big dreams, coming of age, globetrotting careers in pursuit of a place among the global elite. Born less than a year apart, they crisscrossed the Old Continent from club to club, searching for fulfillment, often logging thousands of extra air miles to represent their country with El Tri, before pulling up stakes for new adventures on center stage in Los Angeles.

El Trafico, a rivalry birthed on the unforgettable occasion of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Galaxy debut and the heroics he produced to lead his club to that stunning comeback victory at Dignity Health Sports Park four years ago, rarely lacks for hype. Being graced at last by two of the greatest Mexican players of their generation also adds a deeply personal element to Saturday’s rendition, though.

“I mean, I grew up with him,” Chicharito told Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins on The Call Up this week, revealing that he and Vela had “a very good conversation on the phone last week about our lives, to catch up a little bit” as they prepare to compete. “Regardless of the rivalry and the Trafico and what it means for him and for myself, obviously, to face for the first time each other in this league since I came, because of COVID and all my injuries and he was injured as well. So, finally – it’s going to be a very, very special moment, even, for me, because I love him so much.

“It's always special when you play against people that you admire, that you love and you grew up with.”

That interview was one of several the bilingual Hernandez has conducted this week; the outgoing striker rarely shies away from the media duties that usually accompany his level of fame and success, even to the point of starring in an unscripted-TV series about his and his family’s experiences in Europe.

Vela, by contrast, is a bit less comfortable in front of the cameras, a more reluctant superstar less willing to make concessions to fans’ voracious appetite for coverage in Mexico, the United States and beyond. As of Thursday afternoon, he had yet to be made available to the media ahead of the big game, which could and probably will be interpreted in some quarters as another tea leaf to read in regards to his opaque future, with his current LAFC contract running out in midseason and rumors rampant about what and where he might try next, should his time in Black & Gold reach its end.

Then again, Vela might just have put his wife Saioa and their young children Romeo and India first this week. It’s the sort of decision he’s made repeatedly, like his decision to sit out the MLS is Back Tournament in 2020 out of an abundance of caution during Saioa’s second pregnancy. And just about every time he’s dipped below the radar, be it an injury layoff, a declined invitation from the Mexican national team or something else, he roars back with his performances on the pitch.

“He's really special. He's really peculiar, if you can see,” said Chicharito of Vela. “He's very authentic, that’s something that I admire in particular. But he's such a nice guy. He opens the door of his feelings and he welcomes you that way. I would love that people can see more of him; he decides to, as well, [not] show that much of his side. He likes to be more private in that sense. And I'm completely the opposite. I'm more of an extrovert in the cameras and all that good stuff, and he's like more of an introvert. But he's such a kind guy, very generous and as well, very fun.”

Their soccer skill sets differ, too, even if goals are the primary currency for both. Vela is the classic mercurial playmaker, occasionally invisible yet nigh unstoppable when on song, as he and his teammates were in their 2019 cruise to the Supporters’ Shield, one of the more dominant season-long performances in recent MLS history.

“They're obviously both great players. They both have amazing qualities, each different in their own right,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. “And hopefully both perform at a very high level, but Carlos a little more than Chicharito, that would be my wish. But there are also 20 other players on the field with a lot of quality, and that is what the game will be decided on.”

A quintessential fox in the box, Hernandez relies on his teammates’ service to thrive and on Wednesday cautioned reporters not to overplay the star face-off narratives, considering that both clubs must function as collectives this season if they are to maintain their current places at and near the top of the Western Conference standings.

“We’re all aware of Carlos’ quality,” said LAFC midfielder Pancho Ginella on Thursday. “Our work as a team as teammates is to help him be at his best, as we know when he's on his best, he's the best player in the league. He's always showed that. So in these games a lot can happen, but our end goal is for us to be together and for us to support him to be at his best level. And the rest is up to the match.”

When Chicharito signed with the Galaxy two years ago, then-Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl pondered whether his crosstown competition with Vela “may well be the defining topic of the 2020 MLS season.” Injuries, COVID-19 and other factors wreaked havoc on that prospect, yet this weekend we may finally get a taste of the matchup.

Whatever your allegiances might be, there’s little doubt that their presence dials up the quality of El Trafico as a spectacle not to be missed.

“On a basic level, it takes the level of the game up,” said Gs head coach Greg Vanney. “Two players with their quality, the form that each of them have, makes the game more exciting. Anything can happen at any moment when you add guys of that caliber into a game like this, in addition to the emotion. It adds also, I think, just to the fan environment and with both sides having their main guy there in this game and the rivalry, I think it adds a little bit to that side of it as well. So it should be exciting.”