LAFC are sitting in first place in the Western Conference standings while leading the Supporters' Shield race with a league-leading 36 points. And they are adding world-class talent in Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, who could both debut in the derby game. Though more likely Chiellini as Bale has not yet arrived in LA.
Meanwhile, let’s be honest: The Galaxy have been underwhelming this year, sitting fourth in the West on 27 points, even on points with FC Dallas and Nashville SC.
Led by former Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney, the club have a win-now mentality but are yet to unlock their potential and have only a small window to make it happen. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is productive but is an aging star at age 34. Douglas Costa is talented but has been uninspiring, and most recently received an additional one-game suspension from his red card in Week 17, meaning he will miss Friday's El Trafico.
Even so, with a win against their city rivals, they would only be six points back with a game in hand. And the attitude around the Galaxy could all change with a massive three points and possibly a few transfer additions now that the Secondary Transfer Window is officially open.
The last time we had this much excitement around El Trafico was the very first fixture. That featured the introduction of the superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored 52 goals in just two seasons but never secured a trophy for the Galaxy. Coming on as a second-half substitute, the Swede banged home two goals in 19 minutes to help the Galaxy rally to a 4-3 win.
HIGHLIGHTS: LA Galaxy vs. Los Angeles Football Club | March 31, 2018
The match was wild and the buzz was real.
Ibrahimovic’s 2019 season was his best, producing 30 goals to go with seven assists in 29 starts. But LAFC counterpart Carlos Vela produced the greatest goalscoring season in MLS history with a record-breaking 34 goals and 15 assists in 31 starts.
Vela’s amazing year is no fault of Ibrahimovic. But in my opinion, Zlatan’s failure to bring silverware to the Galaxy prevents him from overtaking the likes of Robbie Keane and David Beckham in Galaxy club lore.
How it feels to play (and score) in a derby
In my career, my derby experience came playing against city rivals AIK and Djurgarden of Stockholm during my time at Hammarby IF in Sweden. There wasn’t a particular player that made the rivalry aside from club history and the local supporters’ unwavering passion, which made these matches special.
Hammarby had some of the most committed fans I’ve witnessed in the sport. It was truly a privilege to play in front of these supporters who defined the club’s culture. There were epic walks of 10,000-plus fans marching into the stadium together. There were flares and tifos, all while being decked out in club colors. You looked at the other half of the stadium and it was a sea of blue (Djrugarden) or a wall of black and gold (AIK). These were the games to shine in and where a memorable performance could cement you as a club legend.
I performed well against rival Djugarden. I remember scoring my first goal in this derby, and I happened to be on the away end. I sprinted to the corner, looked at their fans and ripped off my jersey to flex. I just had to! That was the moment I truly connected with the fan base.
Players get starstruck too
When you’re playing against the biggest names in the biggest games, a few emotions take over.
Some of the players I competed against during these rivalries actually gave me nostalgia and had me reminiscing about the days I watched them on TV as a child, and now I’m playing against them.
One of those was Henrik Larsson, a striker I always admired who had returned to his hometown Swedish club after a successful stint with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. I knew I would have those emotions before kick-off, but I wanted to show him I could play. It ended 0-0 but I had a strong game.
At the final whistle, I walked over to Larsson and told him how he inspired me and that I learned from watching him play. He was appreciative and gave me words of encouragement and confidence to push forward. Those are the moments you hope for when you’re playing professionally.
In my MLS career, the rivalry that always stands out was playing against the iconic Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls.
I couldn’t overcome the inner hysteria of competing against my childhood idol in the first few matches, and I tried to do too much. I wanted to play the game of my life and instead forced myself into making poor decisions in the match and often taking too many touches.
It took a few matches before I no longer thought of the magnitude of the moment and was able to relax, do my job and play to my strengths. And in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final during the Audi 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs, I scored a brace in a 2-2 match, advancing our New England Revolution side to the MLS Cup Final.
What to expect from new Black & Gold stars
LAFC have two experienced, world-class players coming into town in Bale and Chiellini.
I had the chance to play against Chiellini in the 2009 Confederations Cup when the US men’s national team played against Italy. He was tactically sound and read the game so well. He is a defender who uses his body to prevent you from starting your runs and uses his hands to delay you. He’s very good at aerial duels and is a tough tackler, usually getting a piece of you while he wins the ball.
Bale was out of favor with his former club, Real Madrid, and needed a change of scenery. At age 32, he is coming into the league still in his prime, with a World Cup to prepare for after the MLS season. The moment he steps on the pitch he’ll need to perform at his highest level consistently to help the club win and to be ready for Qatar.
A hungry and healthy Gareth Bale is scary. That alone has to make John Thorrington and the LAFC brass feel quite confident that this signing will deliver a trophy. And signing these two stars, plus re-signing Vela, makes their desire to win now very clear. So does the depth of an LAFC roster that includes US international Kellyn Acosta, Ecuador international Jose Cifuentes, Uruguay international Brian Rodriguez and in-form attacker Cristian Arango.
LAFC's GM explains how he recruited Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini
Change of shape for the Galaxy?
LA Galaxy are coming into this edition of El Trafico off a 4-0 win vs. CF Montréal where the big story was Greg Vanney opting for a 4-4-2 formation, partnering Chicharito with Dejan Jovelic up top. The pairing could be just what Chicharito needs to jumpstart his season and just maybe play his way into Mexico’s World Cup roster.
Joveljic has found the net in four consecutive MLS games, scoring five goals. He could equal the club record with another goal Friday. That would match what Zlatan did on four occasions in a Galaxy shirt, scoring in five straight.
The recent shutout should give confidence to a group who've been struggling to find steady defensive performances or consistency from their supporting offensive cast of Costa, Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir. The latter trio has shown flashes but has largely undelivered. The former – particularly the Galaxy's center backs – have made consistent errors that will need to be rectified if they are to compete for trophies.
The introduction of El Trafico was scintillating and took the league by storm. It would be hard to imagine a more significant match than that of 2018 with the Vela vs. Zlatan headline, but this could be an epic battle if everyone comes to play. Even though it is unlikely for Bale to make his debut, if the five-time UEFA Champions League winner is able to make it to LA on time, we could be in for something special, potentially even hitting those 2018 levels!