CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy haven't had a whole lot to say about the arrival of LAFC and how it might alter the complexion of Southern California's soccer culture. For them, it’s all about us and what we do, no matter how the fans and media spin things.
And then on the eve of the first showdown, after taking jab after jab from the new kids for at least a year — the big-pockets owners, the gorgeous new stadium in one of the region's most iconic settings, Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, and now wins in the first two games — the Galaxy throw down the biggest exclamation point yet: Zlatan!
Think Major League Soccer's new “Clasico” means nothing to the most decorated club in American soccer? The announcement that the charismatic, superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was, finally, coming to LA – oh, and he might debut against the new rival – seems a most potent reply.
Maybe, maybe not. The timing, the Galaxy say, is just coincidental, but Saturday afternoon's clash at StubHub Center ultimately is just another fight for three points.
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“I'm not blind that it's the first game against LAFC and their first game in Los Angeles,” club president Chris Klein told MLSsoccer.com. “To say that there's more meaning to this game, I think time will tell what this is going to be. I know as a club and players, we want to show well, but in terms of more emphasis on this game than another, I don't know that we have that.”
To a point, Klein is right – that’s the “professional” approach, of course – but there is clearly a buzz around the team this week.
“I think there's no doubt that it's a special game,” midfielder Servando Carrasco said. “It's the first kind of 'Clasico,' or whatever you guys want to call it, and there's only going to be one. There's going to be a lot [of meetings] throughout the years, but I think it's a little bit special because we get to host the first one.
“I guess there's a little bit more to win, for sure. I think it's always going to be special when you look back and you can say, 'I played in the first game, and we won the first game.'”
It's probably the most significant game on this year's regular-season schedule, and you either embrace the buzz or you ignore it. Head coach Sigi Schmid is all in.
“I think you embrace it,” said Schmid, who grew up in Los Angeles and maintained a home here during his stints in Columbus and Seattle. “It's the reason you're playing the game. It's the reason we're all involved in the game, is for moments like this, and the excitement is something special.
“This is the first game, and that's special. Can you be the guy who scores the first goal in this rivalry? Can you be part of the team that wins the first game in this rivalry? Can you be the goalkeeper that gets the first shutout in this rivalry? There's a lot of things you can accomplish and [embed] yourself [within] the cultural history of the team.”
It's not “must-win” — “a must-win game is in the playoffs, where you must win or else you're out,” Schmid says, but it's close.
“They've got a new fan base who kind of think they're the best team in L.A.,” said captain Ashley Cole, who took part in two of Europe's greatest derbies while at Arsenal and AS Roma. “Now we have to prove our characteristics and out history. ... Regardless if they're a new team, they're in our city. We don't want to let the fans down.”
The Galaxy-LAFC rivalry certainly exists among fans, as defaced club murals around the city attest, but does it exist yet on the field?
“It will probably take a few years and a few games,” Cole said. “Of course, they're the closest team to us, but you've got to play them a few times and probably have a few fights to get the rivalry big.”
Rivalries “are created in big games and what happens on the field,” noted Klein, a former winger who played 13 seasons in MLS, the last three and a half with the Galaxy. “That story hasn't been written yet.”
Klein said only the fans can determine the true rivals.
“That's not something we can manufacture, that we can do for them,” he said. “We follow their lead with that. It's like that in any other sport and any other rivalry. We understand the proximity of the two clubs and being in the same market naturally creates some of that itself, but our fans will tell us when and if this is a rivalry and how big it's going to be.”
How big will it be? It could be huge.
“You've got some good rivalries in the league already, when you have a New York Red Bull-NYCFC, obviously Seattle-Portland and that whole Cascadia series, with Vancouver as well,” Schmid said. “When you're in the same city and your stadiums are basically 10 miles apart, that takes it to a different realm. That's more like a Liverpool-Everton. That's more like an Arsenal-Tottenham.”