Rivalry Week

With El Trafico win and Gareth Bale incoming, LAFC hold all the cards

LAFC’s 3-2 victory over the LA Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium on Friday night was not, after all, the MLS debut for incoming stars Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini. Yet it might have been something even better for Steve Cherundolo:

A result that shows those blockbuster additions are wanted but not necessarily needed.

“We’re holding a really good set of cards right now,” the LAFC manager told ESPN in a sideline interview following the game. “And we’re going to do our best to play them right."

With Bale still in street clothes following his return from the U.K., and Chiellini dressed but on the bench, Ecuador international Jose Cifuentes scored twice and Cristian Arango added his team-leading seventh goal of the season to clinch LAFC's first El Trafico win since 2020 in this Heineken Rivalry Week clash.

They did so with the formula LAFC have followed for much of the season, using superior depth to ambush tiring opponents in the latter stages. And as they did so in Week 19, they moved to 39 points and a five-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield chase while handling arguably their most troublesome adversary.

The Galaxy had won the two previous meetings this season – once in the league and in the US Open Cup, both at Dignity Health Sports Park – and had taken at least a point in four previous MLS fixtures.

“We are more, I would say, relaxed and relieved than we are overjoyous,” Cherundolo told reporters afterward. “In the end, it’s three points in a league match. But the rest, all of the celebrations and the bragging rights the next time we see these guys is for our fans."

WATCH: LAFC earn El Trafico bragging rights over LA Galaxy

And that’s what makes the addition of Bale and Chiellini on Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) deals different from other splashy signings of MLS past, more so than the fame or quantity of additions.

There have been stars arguably bigger than Bale (see David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney), and there have been other teams with multiple European stars (see the Beckham and Robbie Keane Galaxy, or the early New York City FC clubs).

But never has an MLS club upped the ante when the going is already so good, then had two stars there to witness a signature moment for the club made without them. And there's a Designated Player spot to be filled during the Secondary Transfer Window if so desired by LAFC, reportedly in the No. 9 mold.

“Our organization has done an amazing job of still staying focused on the task at hand,” Cherundolo said, “but also welcoming players of their caliber and integrating them into the squad."

Why LAFC? Gareth Bale explains step after leaving Real Madrid

That’s certainly not to suggest Bale and Chiellini can’t make this already excellent team even better.

Bale’s talents were wanted by clubs all over the planet this summer, even if he eventually fell out of favor at Real Madrid, where he won five UEFA Champions League titles. Chiellini was the anchor of a nine-time Serie A-winning backline at Juventus.

It’s just that this isn’t the pressure of Rooney coming to rescue a wayward D.C. United squad in 2018 or Ibrahimovic eventually doing the same with the Galaxy in 2019.

“We can definitely be stronger [with them],” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “They bring a different dimension that we didn’t have. … Guys with a lot of experience. Guys who are veteran leaders, veteran presences, guys who have played at the highest level. So I think they’re not only going to encourage guys around them but bring that competitive edge."