With two MLS teams in Los Angeles again, the rivalry between the LA Galaxy and LAFC hasn't had much time to develop, just a little under two years on the field. But with the teams' final meeting of 2019 – and sixth all-time – on tap on Thursday in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada), it's worth asking how hot this rivalry has gotten already.
Around the league and around the world, you may roll your eyes at a Southern Californian telling you how incredible something in Los Angeles is in no time. Sorry, but it's true, and here's my case for why.
Ambition on both sides
The LA area has eight other major pro teams, two powerhouse colleges with strong sports offerings, entertainment options for everyone and beautiful weather. There's a lot to do, and any MLS team worth their salt has to work to get attention locally. Fortunately, both teams have done that.
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The Galaxy established a winning tradition with a record five MLS Cups and a history of being the standard-bearer in MLS, while LAFC have been the first team in the expansion era to play their home games from the beginning at a brand-new soccer-specific stadium. Both teams have spent money on players, too, but more often than not, their track records have been good in that department, and they're going for titles every season.
The battle for Los Angeles
The easy contrast to draw here is to consider LAFC the team of Los Angeles proper, and the Galaxy the team of the suburbs. In reality, that's far too facile, and the concept of "Los Angeles" typically stretches well beyond the city limits.
All that said, LAFC putting a stadium inside the city limits has led to both clubs working hard to win over the city, however you may define it. Both clubs and both sets of fans think they are the club that represents L.A. Throughout Southern California, you see people going about their days in team gear, something I've seen with far more regularity away from the stadiums for both teams over the last year. With two strong, star-studded teams, locals are choosing their side and repping the colors far more often these days.
Both Banc of California Stadium and Dignity Health Sports Park are a place to see and be seen. Why the interest in celebrity sightings? It's L.A. sporting tradition, with Los Angeles Lakers games the place for the famous and wannabe-famous to be a part of the action. It's no different at the LAFC and Galaxy games.
But it goes well beyond the notable names who show up to games. Galaxy games may be a bit underrated in the atmosphere department – when there's a full stadium, the traditions of a lights-out moment of drama, fireworks and confetti scattered everywhere are an indelible part of the experience.
LAFC seem to have raised crowd participation up a notch at The Banc. With The 3252 leading the way, participatory chants like "Jump for LA Football Club" and "A Call to Arms" are getting the rest of the stadium up and jumping around, too, and they are so hypnotizing you may even take your eyes off the action on the field for a few minutes.
Carlos Vela has scored in each El Trafico to date, seven goals in five games. He's been in the middle of the action in each game.
But Zlatan Ibrahimovic...he put the rivalry into MLS history, on his debut, with this incredible play to help lead the Galaxy to a comeback win the the first game between the teams.
Ibrahimovic and Vela lead the way, obviously, as two legit Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidates since entering the league and this year's top two scorers. But beyond them, there's plenty of talent on display who may not yet have the wattage as the big strikers. There's US national team representation (Walker Zimmerman and Sebastian Lletget, among others), Mexican national team stars (Jonathan dos Santos and Vela), and potential stars of tomorrow – here or maybe in Europe in the future (Diego Rossi, Eduard Atuesta, Uriel Antuna, Efrain Alvarez). These teams are stacked and there's someone for everyone to root for.
Clash of styles
We can talk about the cultures surrounding the clubs, the history vs. the novelty, but what about the distinction in how they play? Well, that's significant. This season, LAFC have been about intricate passing, scoring early and often, and pressing opponents into making mistakes.
The Galaxy have been all about finding a moment or two of magic and sucking the life force out of opponents while grinding the game out. The approaches are antithetical, and it will be fascinating to see whether the "good football" of Bob Bradley or the desire to suffer and make the opponent suffer more of Guillermo Barros Schelotto will win out.