El Trafico shot Chicho

LOS ANGELES – Before the question can be fully asked, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez tosses out his answer.

Is El Trafico the biggest rivalry in MLS?

“For sure, 100 percent,” said the LA Galaxy’s captain Wednesday after training at Dignity Health Sports Park.

LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington went a bit further, speaking after training Tuesday at their facility on the campus of Cal State LA.

“I do my best to put my shoe on the other foot – I've only lived this rivalry, though I played in MLS and we had versions of rivalries,” said Thorrington. “But I can tell you from experience those felt nothing like this.

“I think in terms of games of consequence in a city, two very different clubs, same city, and the storylines that have been created – I think we have one club that's been around from the beginning, you have us as a start-up a few years ago. We came in, very different values, different model in how we go about it. And the storylines have just sort of – you couldn't write them. I think all of that leads me to believe, and this is an opinion, not an answer, to believe that this is absolutely the best rivalry in MLS.”

Those remarks come as El Trafico resumes Thursday night (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes) in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, a Western Conference Semifinal that sends the loser home and the victor one step closer to raising the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Nov. 5.

Is playoff El Trafico the biggest MLS rivalry game ever?

Those stakes are high enough, framing the 16th edition of a rivalry that began during LAFC's 2018 expansion season with a 4-3 Galaxy win – it was that Zlatan Ibrahimovic game, where the larger-than-life Swedish striker scored twice for LA, off the bench and just after signing the week prior.

Now, when El Trafico returns for the fourth time across all competitions this year, even more is on the line.

“It's the best rivalry in MLS because we bring everything,” said Galaxy right back Julian Araujo. “It's a game where you're going to see passion, where you're going to see fight. It's not just a game of soccer. It's a little bit more than just to play. We're fighting for this amazing city here, bragging rights.

“It's an amazing game to be a part of and it's everything growing up I wanted to be a part of. It brings out the best in everyone and Thursday is going to be a hell of a game. You'll see two very good teams going at it and trying to fight to stay alive.”

Emotions soar

MLS is home to other high-octane rivalries, something Galaxy veteran Sacha Kljestan knows well from his Best XI-level days with the New York Red Bulls. That put the former US men’s national team midfielder squarely into the New York Derby, including the memorable Red Wedding game at Yankee Stadium, a 7-0 rout of NYCFC for his former team during the 2016 campaign.

“Momentum plays a huge part in the playoffs and especially in rivalry games,” said Kljestan. “Would you ever have guessed eight goals in a derby playoff game? No, but these things happen. I don't think you ever would have guessed a New York Derby would ever finish 7-0 either.

“Crazy things happen, red cards happen, guys lose their cool, emotions are really high and momentum plays a big part. The most important thing is to stay focused 90 minutes, 120 minutes, whatever it is.”

El Trafico has graced the playoffs before, in a 2019 meeting that also occurred in the Western Conference Semifinals. LAFC captain Carlos Vela scored twice, Ibrahimovic scored in what was ultimately his final MLS game, and the Black & Gold emerged as 5-3 victors – all during a season that started a run of two Supporters’ Shield titles in four years.

"It truly means something"

LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo expects increased pressure to bring the best out of both teams, calling for more games of this magnitude around the league.

“I've experienced nothing but positivity from these games,” said Cherundolo, preparing his squad to chase a Shield-Cup double in 2022. “Both fans are very passionate about their clubs. Both really, really want to win because it means something to them.

“If we have games in the United States where it means something to players and fans and to media, where it truly means something, then we're doing a lot of things right. I embrace these games. This is great for the game, it's great for the league and it's great for LAFC to hopefully win.”

Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney similarly took a big-picture approach, noting El Trafico games of increased consequences help MLS grow.

“These knockout rounds or these games that are really meaningful, they always add to the narrative of the rivalry,” said Vanney, leading the record five-time MLS Cup champions and a league original. “One team's going to come out on top tomorrow and one team will have an edge, when it comes to that playoff side and getting to the next round and next level. It's exciting. It just adds more to the story that is ever-building between LAFC and the Galaxy.”

"It's about who runs the city"

Each fanbase will surely have their own opinion on MLS’s best rivalry, with Portland-Seattle, Toronto-Montréal and Columbus-Cincinnati all up there alongside the New York Derby and El Trafico. There's even the budding Texas rivalry, with Thursday's winner advancing to face whoever wins the Austin FC-FC Dallas game that awaits Sunday (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes).

But those who have lived this southern Californian battle tend to reach a singular conclusion.

“I think the proximity of the two clubs makes it the best in the league, by far,” said LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, who spent 2013-18 with Montréal. “You sense it in the community. You go to the park and you see LAFC gear and then Galaxy jerseys, and there's maybe a tense look from that. That's what makes it beautiful and people are proud to support their club. This is why the fans get so into it within Los Angeles.”

In a matchup that’s commanded the spotlight from day one, with their home stadiums about 12 miles apart, there’s always the potential for fireworks (4.38 goals per game). It goes way beyond who wins after 90 or 120 minutes, even penalty kicks if they’re required.

“It's about bragging rights, it's about who runs the city,” said LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “… We know what's at stake, we feel it in those games. It's not necessarily hatred because we have respect for one another, but we also want to battle, we want to win.

“We like having those bragging rights because there's nothing worse than opening up social media and seeing another team saying they run the city or they own the city. We want to be the ones to say that.”