Wiebe: First-ever "El Trafico" will lay stakes for LA Galaxy-LAFC rivalry

After the better part of a year doing battle on the walls of their shared city via spray can, on billboards via catchy slogans and, during the past week, via splashes in the transfer market, the LA Galaxy and Los Angeles Football Club take their nascent rivalry between the lines for the first time with a sliver of common ground.

El Trafico, a stunningly catchy and fitting name that even the most cynical can appreciate, is the moniker that will hang over the soccer world’s newest derby. Even better, it spawned organically, earning the approval of supporters on both sides of the aisle.

Outside of the name, the city they call home and their love for the beautiful game, that’s about all the two sides share in the lead up to Saturday afternoon’s inaugural El Trafico (3 pm ET; FOX in the US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada), when the jockeying for hearts and minds in the City of Angels promises to reach previously unseen levels.

But what’s at stake? For each club? For the supporters? For the present and future of Major League Soccer in Southern California? What are the answers to the questions we’ve batted back and forth since the day Commissioner Don Garber announced Los Angeles would be a two-team city?

Don’t ask me. I’m from the Central Plains, a Kansan whose only experience basking in the bright lights and obscene weather of Los Angeles are a couple MLS Cups (guess who won?) and an MLS SuperDraft. So, like any enterprising internet sleuth, I dropped in the DMs of some fellow podcasters. Here’s what folks on the ground have to say.

Jerry Jimenez, LAFC supporter and co-host of the Heart of LAFC podcast

First, a reminder for the recent arrivals: El Tráfico is not the first MLS derby to go down in Los Angeles. That’d be the SuperClasico, which for its occasional flare ups never burst into a full-fledged bonfire of a rivalry, largely because it was so one-sided.

Jerry Jimenez knows what it’s like to be on the losing side of an LA derby first-hand. He repped the rojo y blanco of Chivas USA – 4W-20L-7D against the Galaxy over 10 seasons – before the club shuttered three years ago, making Jimenez and the rest of the Black Army 1850 supporters group widowers without a club.

Only Jimenez wasn’t out in the wilderness for long. He was one of many from the Black Army who made the decision to switch their allegiance to the new boys in town, the black and gold of LAFC, a club he believes provides the mixture of “working-class vibes and glitz and glamour” that defines true LA culture.

Jimenez will be back at StubHub Center, his old stomping grounds, on Saturday to witness history, his club’s first match in the city they call home. The stakes are high. LAFC have momentum, the cool factor and a new stadium in the shadow of downtown on their side, but there’s no denying the Galaxy’s pedigree, a club of winners that stole the headlines this week with the just-in-time-for-the-derby addition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“I think it goes without saying that it’s the most important game of the year,” Jimenez told me. “We have to win this game. It’s the best possible way to announce our arrival, to exclaim, ‘We are here and we are here to stay.’ I think it will create a dialogue in Los Angeles among even those that don’t follow MLS, and that’s important. It’s up to LAFC to make sure that dialogue is about them and it’s all positive. ‘Did you hear about LAFC destroying Galaxy?’ That’s what we want.”

Josh Guesman, host of Corner of the Galaxy

Only one team has five MLS Cups in their trophy case, and the LA Galaxy aren’t shy about reminding anyone of that fact.

Josh Guesman started in the stands at StubHub Center in 2008, arguably the Galaxy’s worst season since last year’s bottom-of-the-table campaign, started the Corner of the Galaxy podcast (550-plus episodes and counting) a year later and then moved up to the press box in 2012. Over the past decade, he’s seen three championships hoisted skyward by the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane.

Where exactly he stands in the ecosystem has gotten fuzzier over the years, but there’s no doubt he has a finger on the day-to-day pulse of the Galaxy.

“I walk a bridge between fandom and press,” Guesman says. “I enjoy following the stories, and I like when the Galaxy win, but getting information for the other fans is most important to me. No matter what that story is.”

The story in Los Angeles is rapidly changing. Every day, week and year brings a new wrinkle. Last year, the wrinkle was that the Galaxy were bad at the very worst time, prompting some to argue their supremacy would be put to the test with a new team in town. This year, we get to see how that prognostication plays out when at least three head-to-head meetings thankfully replace hype and anticipation.

“Galaxy fans would laugh at the assertion that the Galaxy would somehow lose supremacy after one game. And I would too,” Guesman says. “You have the winningest franchise in MLS history, and is a five-time MLS Cup champion. That can’t be taken away with one game. But a loss would start a long process of erosion, and a series victory by LAFC over the year might start to turn the tide. And to be fair, that erosion started last year when the Galaxy finished dead last. Without any players, or having played a game, LAFC somehow picked up points there.”

They’ve picked up a quick six points to start the year, too, while the Galaxy bounced back and forth between encouraging win, expected loss, a scoreless draw and then the Zlatan news. No matter what either side says, 2018 has all been building up to this, the first of many El Traficos.

“There’s a real sense that something special is happening in Los Angeles,” Guesman says. “… There’s a feeling that this game is going to be big. But there are more than enough soccer fans in Los Angeles to fill both of those stadiums many times over, so it’s more of a fight for ‘who looks like they own LA.’”

Right now, it’s a toss-up.

The Galaxy announced Ibra, and LAFC answered with Andre Horta for a reported $7 million. The Galaxy have the dos Santos brothers, and LAFC have Carlos Vela. The Galaxy have tradition and a trophy case that’s the envy of the league, and LAFC have the benefit of working with a blank slate.

“Both teams have big ambitions and they are now basically fighting over the same fans,” Kevin Baxter, who covers both clubs for the Los Angeles Times, explains. “…The Galaxy fans are clearly feeling threatened and they definitely don't want to share their turf. LAFC fans look at the Galaxy as the smug suburban team with all the advantages and would definitely like to rough them up a bit.”

What’s clear in the buildup is that this thing has potential. The potential to be heated, off and on the field. The potential to be a driving factor in the growth of both clubs. The potential to develop into one of this league’s most colorful, high-stakes matches.

“The rivalry in Los Angeles has a chance to be the No. 1 rivalry in the league,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley, once on the other side at Chivas USA, told reporters this week. “… It’s just different.”

It’ll be different, alright. First things first, though, let’s play a game.

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