Only one point separates them in the Western Conference table. But with more than bragging on the line this season, the El Trafico derby, already vying for the best in MLS, figures to grow more intense, more heated, on the field and in the stands.
Southern California's teams won't wage battle until July 19, when LAFC visit Dignity Health Sports Park – the Banc of California Stadium date is Aug. 25 – and things could look very different by then. But the excitement already is palpable.
“We cannot wait,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said this week. “We've definitely circled that game on our calendar. It's always going to be a big game, regardless of where we are in the standings, but I think it's only going to be crazier.”
Last year's meetings were explosive, memorably on the field and unfortunately off the field, too. There was vandalism, notably to club murals around the LA basin, and fan altercations. The intensity of the rivalry is greater than any other in the Southland, perhaps USC-UCLA excepted.
“This has definitely split the city in two, in a way. Which is a good thing,” Lletget said. “We love it. I mean, we as players, we know players on the other side, for LAFC, and we speak. And we love this rivalry. It's an amazing thing.
“Obviously, we want to keep it safe, as always. But the rivalry between the fans is good. As long as it's safe, I think it's awesome.”
The Galaxy, as MLS's most successful team of the first 23 seasons, have had plenty of rivalries since 1996. The San Jose Earthquakes have been the most hated foe – the California Clasico is a cousin to baseball's Dodgers-Giants feud – and Chivas USA, at least for a while, were a solid cross-stadium derby.
LAFC are a different kind of rival. The club arrived amid great fanfare, with some big pockets and bigger names behind the venture, a glistening new stadium in the shadow of the iconic Memorial Coliseum, Bob Bradley in charge and an impressive array of talent led by Mexican star Carlos Vela, and a fierce following that has made Banc of California Stadium among the most intimidating venues around.
The showdowns so far have been classics. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's two strikes – and especially that 40-yarder to introduce himself to MLS – in an epic 4-3 comeback win, the Galaxy's late comeback for a draw on LAFC's pitch in July, and a 1-1 standoff in Carson a month later. The fact that LAFC were contending for trophies and the Galaxy trying, in vain it turned out, to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight year added further edge.
Now it's different. LAFC have scored an MLS-best 26 goals and have the league's top defensive mark, with just eight goals conceded in 10 games. The Galaxy have also surrendered just eight goals and are 5-0 in one-goal games. Vela, with 11 goals already, and Ibrahimovic, who has scored eight in seven appearances – four of them game-winners – are the early favorites in an MVP race that has many months to run.
“They've both been fantastic. Especially in the box, they've both been lethal,” Lletget noted. “It's very interesting in that aspect of things, to watch two great players go at it.”
Vela has LA's attention, for sure. He scored the first goal in the first two meetings last year, then won and converted a second-half penalty kick to give LAFC a share of the points in the third match.
“He's technical, he's extremely fast, he's got a knack for scoring goals, he puts himself in good spots,” Galaxy center back Daniel Steres said. “He's always threatening the backline.”
There's more to LAFC, of course, than just Vela.
“I think the whole dynamic [is impressive] and the way Bob has them playing,” Lletget said. “The way they can just, you know, they can score a lot of goals ... and everybody on their team has done really well. I don't think they've put a player in the game that hasn't really done his job.”
Said Steres: “They play one-, two-touch pretty quickly, their attackers are really dangerous, and they've been pretty balanced this year. They've got a good team, they're playing well, but we'll be ready when the time comes.”