Sunday's edition of El Trafico ended up as a relatively comfortable 2-0 win for LAFC, but there were no shortage of storylines to chew on coming off the matchup, including the return of the league's MVP and a controversial goal call. Here are three observations coming off this latest rivalry clash.
Should it have counted?
But should it have been wiped off the board? The Galaxy adamantly contended yes, as replays showed that the ball may have gone out of bounds on the opposite touchline immediately prior to the sequence that led to the goal. The goal was checked in the replay booth, and ultimately confirmed. You can watch the whole sequence below.
It was arguably the most pivotal moment in the game, as the Galaxy's oft-maligned defense had actually managed to stay afloat and maintain the scoreless deadlock to that point despite playing with 10 men for a lengthy stretch due to an early red card on Giancarlo Gonzalez. As to be expected, the Galaxy were none too pleased at their postgame press conferences.
"The big mistake was VAR on the first goal for LAFC," Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. "I was surprised when I saw the play, the ball is very clearly out. Even the player for LAFC checked with the linesman, what he is doing, because he realized the ball was out and it was a corner. I think more important thing that changed the game, was the mistake by the VAR, not the red. Because the ref can sometimes make a mistake, but the VAR has to figure out that the ref was wrong. It was very clear the ball was out. I don’t know why the VAR didn’t say that, because the ball is out."
Added midfielder Sacha Kljestan: "I won’t say the VAR call changed maybe the result of the game, but it definitely changes momentum. I can’t look back and say we would’ve won that game or we would’ve tied that game had they not scored the first goal, but when you look at images after and see that the ball is clearly out of bounds and that’s the start of their attacking phase of play. In my opinion the first goal should have been called back for out of bounds and I think it would’ve been a corner kick for us."
LAFC haven't matched their record-setting form from a year ago in 2020, but they also haven't had the league's best player for most of it: Carlos Vela hadn't appeared in MLS match since August 22 leading into Sunday, as he recovered from an MCL injury.
While LAFC still have a lot of attacking talent even without him, Vela is arguably the most dominant player in the league, as evidenced by his 34-goal, 15 assist MVP-winning campaign of last season. On Sunday, he offered up a quick reminder of the type of dynamic traits he brings to the table on a game-by-basis with his 93rd-minute insurance tally.
"It means a lot to everybody that Carlos, not only gets back on the field after being out for a while, but then scores an excellent goal. It's been really good just to have him back in training," LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said. "We're excited to get him back every day and keep trying to push him and have him really finish the season in a great way."
"He's excited. He's always in a good mood, and I've said so many times over the last three years that his personality, his sense of humor, his all-around good way is important in terms of the chemistry of our group. He's a leader in a really positive way."
For LAFC, Vela's return couldn't come at a better time as they look ahead to the playoffs. If the 31-year-old comes back at full force, it's a game-changer and instantly turns Bradley's side into a team that no one is going to be excited about facing.
A glimmer of hope for the Galaxy?
The Galaxy have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league all season, and after the early red card, few likely would have been surprised to see LAFC start running riot and turn the game into a blowout.
In fairness to the Galaxy, they managed to keep the game competitive and still found themselves with a chance to salvage a point until Vela put it away. It's probably of little consolation to Barros Schelotto or the increasingly restless fan base, but if the club is to salvage any sort of positive vibes down the stretch, they'll hope that the moxie they showed playing with 10 men is something that can be built upon.
That might seem like a reach in what has been a miserable season, but the Galaxy need all the hope they can get. As Kljestan pointed out, things can change quickly in this league, and LA are still mathematically alive if they can start stacking three-point results in their last stretch of games. If they can't, the voices pining for change in Carson this offseason will only get louder.
"I think rest of the guys tried to keep fighting [after the red card]," Kljestan said. "Either way you’re down 1-0 and you’re down a man, it’s really difficult to come back but we stayed in the game until the 90th minute. ... We gave ourselves a chance, weren’t able to capitalize.
"The thing to remember in MLS is a 3-4 game winning streak will probably get you in the playoffs, so we know that we still have it in our hands. I think if we go out and win the rest of our games that we can make playoffs."