CARSON, Calif. -- LAFC are the best team in Major League Soccer, maybe as good or better than anyone else the league has seen over nearly a quarter-century, but what they haven't been is the best team in Los Angeles.
Not based on the first four El Trafico meetings with the LA Galaxy, who have ridden Zlatan Ibrahimovic's majesty to two big triumphs and two draws, nor on last month's initial meeting of the season, a 3-2 victory at Dignity Health Sports Park that was nowhere near as close as the score suggests.
The Galaxy (13-11-2) have shown a knack for disrupting LAFC's momentum and, because of that, head into Sunday night's showdown at Banc of California Stadium (10:30 pm ET | FS1 in US; TSN in Canada) brimming with confidence. Are they in their archrival's head?
“Yeah, I think we definitely feel that way,” US men's national team midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “At least we like to think that. I think we go into the game thinking we already have an advantage. You know, that mental edge. And that's kind of our style. That's kind of grown into our style. That's sort of the way we approach games.
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“Of course, we have talent. Of course, we want to play nice. But I think we have that mental edge over some teams at times, and I think it shows especially against them.”
The Galaxy, an inconsistent side for the most part the past couple of years, have looked like champions when toe-to-toe with LAFC. They rallied from three goals down for a 4-3 triumph home in the inaugural showdown last year, with Ibrahimovic — making his MLS debut — netting the goal of the season to tie the score, then putting away the winner in stoppage time.
They overcame a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 draw four months later at Banc of California, then fought to a 1-1 draw in a tense, entertaining battle a month after that. And Ibrahimovic's hat trick fueled the 3-2 win on July 19, a game LA controlled most of the way.
Is Ibrahimovic in LAFC's head?
“I don't know,” he said. “You ask them.”
He says such elements are “not my kind of game,” and that he puts little thought to them.
“I think you need to stay focused, focused on the game and do your job and do you best and the rest is weak people fail, strong people win,” said the Swedish superstar, whose physical play can often unmoor defenders. “I play my game. I play with my feet. I don't try to get in somebody's head or try to get them out of balance by speaking. .... I try to do what I'm best at and I succeed.”
The Galaxy have tweaked their archrival about that success, putting up a billboard outside Banc of California Stadium at season's start of the big Swede dominating LAFC. They placed a few more nearby billboards in advance of Sunday's game.
“I thought it was a good touch. I thought it was funny. I thought it was good,” Lletget said. “That stuff, that gets us going. That's just good for the city, man. Even though they're probably a little bitter about it, but it's good. It's good spice.”
He said such gamesmanship served as “little reminders of things, and it carries onto the game, and I think it's our job to back that up, in a way.” And if it gets under LAFC's skin, all the better.
“I'm sure it builds up a little bit of anger they probably already had, but now it's like a little cherry on top. ... If they put one outside our stadium, we'd probably be like, OK, give a little smirk, and you save it for the game. It's exciting. We love it, man. It's going to be good for sure.”
LA clearly respect the club 12 miles to the north along the Harbor Freeway. LAFC (19-3-4), behind landslide MVP favorite Carlos Vela, are sprinting toward the Supporters' Shield, blowing out top foes -- their 4-0 home romp Wednesday night over San Jose, maybe the league's second-best side when on form, followed a 5-0 March massacre in the Bay Area -- and playing with a spirit and style rarely seen in North American soccer.
“Look at their goal-difference [plus-46, with a league-best 71 goals and a league-low 25 conceded]. It is that for a reason,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “They're not skating by teams, they're beating teams, 5-0, 4-0 a lot of the time. They're pretty relentless. Even when they get up on you, they don't sit back. They don't change the way they play. They go at you, and they know how to play that way, and they know how to do it well.”
Head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who captained Columbus Crew SC to a Cup/Shield double in 2008, likens LAFC to last year's Atlanta United FC, which played a rollicking brand of attacking soccer en route to the MLS Cup title, and believes they might be the best team ever to take the field in an MLS match.
“Yeah, [you can tell by] the numbers, but not always the winner of the Supporters' Shield is the winner of the Cup,” he said. “But we need to recognize they are a really good team, they are playing [at a] very high level. But we have a good team, we beat them [a month] ago, so we need to get confident about ourselves and go to the LAFC stadium and compete with them.”