Sacha Kljestan Jose Cifuentes

The intrigue and excitement had been on the radar for a bit, but the anticipation truly sparked to the forefront last weekend.

As the LA Galaxy wrapped up a big 3-1 win at the Portland Timbers in MLS’s final Week 5 game, before the players even got off the field, focus shifted to this Saturday's meeting with LAFC at Dignity Health Sports Park (7:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes).

Come on, it is El Trafico after all.

“I have to acknowledge my bias here,” LAFC co-president and GM John Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com, “but I think this is the greatest rivalry the league has ever had.”

In year five of this rivalry between the LA Galaxy and LAFC, the game has a new angle: For the first time in MLS, friends and Mexican stars Carlos Vela and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will be fit to play against each other.

“The one thing in games like this, you don’t have to motivate guys,” Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney said.

El Trafico has been among the most anticipated games in MLS every year, with off-field passion and on-field fireworks aplenty. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s debut, the 5-3 Audi MLS Cup Playoff game and much more between, this game has a knack for the audacious.

“There have been rivalries, and we have them as well, that on-field rivalries that sort of trickle into the stands. It’s nothing like we have here [in El Trafico],” Thorrington said. “I talk about games of consequence, and those consequences can vary, but this is always a game of consequence. No matter what the form, everybody focuses on the build-up and the 90 minutes. There have been remarkable storylines that couldn’t have been scripted, with moments both painful for us and exhilarating.”

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The battle for LA, on and off the field

LAFC and the Galaxy both have gripped the city of Los Angeles and Southern California in different ways.

The Galaxy had been the gold standard in MLS, one of the originals in the league – the home of five MLS Cup championships, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham. LAFC came and forged their own path, with their sleek black kits a polar opposite to the Galaxy’s preferred whites, and their raucous Banc of California Stadium tucked right in the city, a stone’s throw from The Coliseum.

“What does LAFC mean to Los Angeles, our city, our supporters? It’s passion,” Thorrington said. “You see it every game. Anyone who attends our games from anywhere, the passion they see from our supporters, is second to none. That level of emotion and passion is heightened in these matches. Our players know that. Our players know the importance of that. Our staff knows it. We know it. I’m absolutely certain our players will give everything.”

El Trafico has been played 13 times already in four short years, with the sides combining for 58 (!) goals. The Galaxy have the edge in the series with 5W-3L-5D, but LAFC have the win in the lone playoff matchup. LAFC have finished ahead of the Galaxy in three of their four seasons, only trailing Los Angeles’ incumbent in the 2021 season, though both clubs missed the playoffs anyway.

“The Galaxy are the original team,” Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “I grew up in Southern California, I was a Galaxy fan growing up. When I look at our fanbase, I think it represents Los Angeles very well. When people look at LA from the outside, it’s this glitz and glam, and Hollywood stars. But the rest of Los Angeles – the real Los Angeles – is working-class people, hard-working people. The majority of people around here see our team, the real people of Los Angeles are fans of our team. But that little glitz and glam, the Galaxy always have superstars. So we blend really well.”

Kljestan grew up in Huntington Beach in Southern California. His career began with Chivas USA, the now-defunct MLS club which was supposed to be the league’s second team in Southern California.

Vanney played for the Galaxy from 1996-2001, then again in 2008. He was also an assistant coach at Chivas USA from 2011-12.

“The rivalry with Chivas never got to this,” Vanney said. “Chivas always felt like the little brother, it never felt like the clubs were ever on par and there was competition. This one with LAFC, they built a huge fanbase and have had fantastic seasons. The competition is on a different level, the quality of players, the evolution of the league, a lot of things.”

LAFC have never been shy about their ambition in the game, in the league – as highlighted by 2019's then-record-setting Supporters' Shield. They want to be among the continent’s most recognizable and successful clubs, a real Hollywood story.

“​​What LAFC is able to do now is standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us,” Thorrington said. “I think LAFC represents the now and the future of MLS; I say that with all due respect to every club. Every club has to choose how they want to do things. I think in five short years, our ambition was to be the authors of the next growth phase in this league. We’ve set a foundation, but that requires trophies that were are still to win and matches we are still to win.”

Offseason tweaks fuel fast starts for each

Both clubs are off to strong starts this season.

LAFC refreshed the group this offseason, with Steve Cherundolo taking over as head coach and a number of key intra-league additions arriving like Kellyn Acosta, Maxime Crepeau, Franco Escobar, Ryan Hollingshead and Ilie Sanchez. They hit the ground running immediately, sitting atop the Western Conference at this early juncture.

“One of the advantages with Steve is that he already knew his players,” Thorrington said. “Whilst he was certainly given license to change the team as he saw fit, the way LAFC plays is a part of who we are as a club. It enabled him to hit the ground running, but I want to give due credit to the other staff who’s helped Steve. Ante Razov has stayed on the staff, Marc Dos Santos was like a returning alumni and also the new staff who have come in. Part of our evolution process was to bring in some fresh perspectives, but also sticking to what we thought contributed to building this solid foundation.”

Cherundolo first arrived at the club as head coach of Las Vegas Lights, leading LAFC's USL Championship affiliate in 2021 before getting the first-team job this winter after Bob Bradley moved to Toronto FC.

“Stevie has done really well,” Kljestan said. Kljestan and Cherundolo played together for years on the US men's national team under Bradley. “Continuing on what Bob started and tweaking it, making it his own.”

Steve Cherundolo LAFC 2
LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo is entering his first El Trafico.

LAFC still have one more high-leverage addition they plan on making, too.

The club have had a DP spot open since Diego Rossi was loaned to Turkish club Fenerbahce. While they looked into adding a DP this winter, the right deal never materialized and they remain in active talks with targets. Sources say the expectation remains that Rossi’s loan becomes a permanent move, something that could become official this month.

“We feel really good about the group we have, but the plan is to utilize the spot to bring in a very high-impact player,” Thorrington said. “Our window is still open, so we have the ability to do that in the short term, but we also have the luxury to wait until the summer, which gives us more data points to give us the right DP moving forward.”

MLS’s Primary Transfer Window is open until May 4 before the Secondary Transfer Window opens on July 7.

The Galaxy made some tweaks this offseason, too. In year two under Greg Vanney, a number of core players remained but the group was augmented by a few high-impact additions.

Former Brazil international Douglas Costa was signed as a DP, Mark Delgado was acquired in a trade with Toronto FC and Raheem Edwards signed in free agency. All three players have been first-choice starters early in the season. Costa has given the attack another highly talented option, Delgado helped balance the midfield next to Rayan Raveloson and Edwards took over at left back, leading the league in assists (4).

The positive changes at both clubs have resulted in an early top-of-the-table clash between rivals.

​​“It’s huge,” Chicharito said. “They’re first in our conference, they’re our neighbors. They want to reach the level that this organization has reached, it means a lot. … We know what it means, we know what it represents. But on the pitch, it’s going to be 11v11. If you can manage the pressure and all the noise, you can manage it.”