Outsiders tend to be spellbound by Southern California’s beach vibes and Tinseltown glitz. But visitors to Dignity Health Sports Park and its Carson environs are quickly reminded that large swathes of the South Bay are blue-collar communities, powered by the aerospace, automotive and oil industries as well as two of the world’s largest shipping ports.
Many of those workers are loyal LA Galaxy supporters. And as fans returned at 25% capacity for Saturday’s clash with LAFC, the first El Trafico with spectators in the stands since 2019, their team summoned that lunchpail mentality to gut out a 2-1 victory over their crosstown rivals that sends another priceless gust of momentum flooding into the sails of head coach Greg Vanney’s rebuilding project.
“It's just amazing to feel that energy of when the results come, when you give everything,” Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez told reporters after scoring his team’s opener and assisting on the game-winner, a clever sequence capped by his friend and countryman Jonathan dos Santos’ timely late run and finish.
“We knew how to suffer,” he said later in Spanish, “and that resilience – resilience of not falling, to keep working, and keep looking, and have a lot of confidence – is incredible.”
In strictly numerical terms, the crowd of 7,193 won’t rank among the Galaxy’s biggest or loudest ever. But after a pandemic year of empty stadiums, its role in urging the home team to victory was obvious, producing a groundswell of support that even muffled (at least for the players and coaches on the field) the 3.7-magnitude earthquake centered a few miles west of the stadium in the game's final minutes.
“The atmosphere, it was very electric,” said Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, one of Saturday’s heroes with four key saves. “I would’ve loved to have seen the stadium at 100% capacity, because I know that my defenders couldn't hear me very well, and we only had 25% capacity. So that's how loud it was.”
Most installments of this young but pulsating rivalry have been track meets, flowing breathlessly from one end to the other and back even as the respective coaches cut and thrust with tactical adjustments in real time. That tone dominated again here.
Chicharito’s opportunistic strike was made possible by a thunderous tackle by Derrick Williams on Jose Cifuentes that simultaneously snuffed out an LAFC transition and dropped the ball at Hernandez’s dangerous feet. And when Diego Rossi equalized with a well-earned finish just after the hour mark, the DHSP faithful willed their side towards the breakthrough that was eventually carved out by their star Mexican duo.
“Given what everybody's gone through the last year and all the games that have been played with no fans, I don't know if our team produces that type of effort and that type of commitment without the fans there pushing them, backing them every step,” said Vanney.
“When guys wanted to be tired, the fans were pushing them – they're cheering and they wanted to see it. So for me it's a culture win and that includes our fans, which are part of our culture and part of our family and who we are, and I think they were a huge part of that today in helping our guys just dig a little deeper.”
Much ink has been spilled about Chicharito’s response to the adversity of 2020. Dos Santos, too, has struggled with injuries and form, and with his intellect and graft in the engine room, can appear even more essential to his team’s fortunes. Just like his delirious goal celebrations, he carried both elation and fatigue to his seat in front of the cameras for postgame questions from the media.
“I’m really exhausted but happy; I won’t forget this game. I needed this goal for all the effort I’m putting in to get back to my best,” said Dos Santos, who spoke frankly this week about the elusive cramping and soft-tissue problems that have plagued him, and the biomechanics analyses that he and the Galaxy’s performance staff hope has identified the roots of the issue.
“Yes it’s true that I’ve worked a lot,” he added. “You do not see the work that goes on behind the cameras, in training. The truth is that I kill myself to be at my level … little by little I am improving, I am reaching my level, and this goal helps me build my confidence.”
Both players revealed that Chicharito, who had yet to notch an assist in Galaxy colors, had predicted before the game that he’d play provider to Dos Santos.
“I told him that probably I was going to assist him,” said Chicharito with one of his trademark grins. “I don't want to sound, like, very Nostradamus, but I've been telling a lot to Jona – and I want to do this public[ly], because Jona, Jona is one of the other of the best players in MLS.
“That’s why LA Galaxy bet on him when they signed him. He's a [first-] 11 starter with a Mexican national team, it’s a World Cup kind of player. He's been very unlucky with the injuries, but right now we’re seeing what Jona is capable of. Apart from scoring goals, you can see his performances today, and he's our captain, he's our leader.”
The older siblings in this backyard brawl, the Galaxy extended their winning record in El Traficos to 5-3-3 overall and still have yet to lose to LAFC on their home turf. To have their latest such triumph run their 2021 record to 3-1-0 in Vanney’s early days only bolsters a growing sense of belief around the club.
“We’re trying to establish a style, a way of playing. We are a new team, we've got lots of new players trying to gel,” said Bond. “But in that learning process that we're in at the moment – and will be in, probably, for some time – we're grinding out results, and we've done it in different ways.
“It was very satisfying to win in that way today, in this kind of game.”