In the standings, Saturday’s game between the LA Galaxy and LAFC (3 pm ET | FOX in the US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) is nothing more than a normal match in late March, an early milepost in the long, winding road that is a Major League Soccer season.
In reality, there’s far more at stake at StubHub Center than simply three points. The Galaxy and their new neighbors will be looking to control the narrative, earn status around MLS and, perhaps most importantly, win hearts and minds in Los Angeles on Saturday.
“It’s only game four for us, game three for them, but it’s tough to deny the interest that’s surrounding it,” Galaxy president Chris Klein told MLSsoccer.com on Monday. “It’s a team that’s just down the road, two teams in L.A. playing a game against each other, their first game in Los Angeles, so I can understand the interest that’s there. It does have the feeling of a game that is a little bit bigger.”
For the Galaxy, the inaugural edition of what some fans are calling “El Trafico” comes with the club in a bit of a transition. Long the league’s star-studded flagship, LA endured their worst season ever in 2017. With Bruce Arena, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Steven Gerrard all departing after the 2016 season, LA took a new approach heading into last year, hiring former LA Galaxy II head coach Curt Onalfo as Arena’s replacement and plucking a number of new players from their USL side. The changes didn’t take. Onalfo was fired barely six months into his tenure and LA finished the year tied for last in MLS with 32 points.
As the Galaxy were reeling, LAFC were landing the dean of American soccer coaches in Bob Bradley, signing a Mexican star in Carlos Vela and building a state-of-the-art stadium just outside of downtown Los Angeles, painting a clear picture in soccer circles as to what direction the teams seemed to be trending in the market. As LAFC were in the process of selling out of their entire allotment of 17,500 season tickets at Banc of California Stadium, it was reported that the Galaxy saw season ticket holders dropped by 20 percent to 9,500 for 2018.
This winter, the Galaxy did what they could to fight back. They remade their roster over the offseason, signing a number of new players for their backline and acquiring Ola Kamara for their attack. The additions looked promising, but they lacked flash. That changed last week, when the Galaxy got back to their SuperClub roots and signed global star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who could debut Saturday.
Klein didn’t say it, but LA signing Ibrahimovic felt like a bit of a reminder to LAFC and the rest of MLS: No matter how bad things got last year, the Galaxy are still the Galaxy, still the star-studded, five-time league champions that have historically set the standard for every MLS club.
“I don’t think there’s one thing that we can do that would show or convince or re-convince people that the Galaxy are still the Galaxy,” Klein said. “Our intention along the way is to approach our club like we always have, in an aggressive manner, one that makes our fans proud and doing it in the Galaxy way.”
They can drive that intent home a bit further with a win against perfect LAFC this weekend. StubHub Center will be full, Zlatan might debut and, for the first time in over a year, the spotlight will be firmly fixed on LA. They can’t make a grand statement (it is still March, after all), but the Galaxy can show this weekend that, last year aside, as MLS continues to grow, they’re ready to grow along with it.
“Through good times and through not so good times like last year, we’re going to continue to approach things the same way, and that’s doing everything we can to be one of the top clubs in our league,” Klein said. “We know that that continues to be harder because there are more and more clubs that are approaching it that way and that just gives us more incentive that we need to aggressively push forward.”