CARSON, Calif. – This is the game the LA Galaxy wanted, the showdown they pined for as they secured their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth in three seasons, the carrot dangling ahead of them as they bulled through a difficult first-round clash at Minnesota United.
LAFC might be the best team in the league, with 21 wins, records for points (72), goals (85, tying the Galaxy's 1998 mark) and goal difference (plus-48), and a dynamic attacking style that has enabled domination of most foes – but they aren't the best team in LA.
The Supporters’ Shield winners will need to conquer their El Trafico rival, at some point, to claim that status, and the Galaxy are confident that it won't happen in Thursday night's Western Conference Semifinal at Banc of California Stadium (10:30 pm ET | ESPN in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada).
After five meetings, LAFC are still looking for their first victory over the archrivals and this faceoff – the most anticipated matchup of the season, at least so far – offers far greater stakes than the previous encounters, of course.
What has given the Galaxy (16-15-3 in the regular season) the advantage?
“To be honest, I'm not really sure,” left back Dave Romney said after LA's training session Tuesday at Dignity Health Sports Park. “The first game kind of left them, probably, with a bad taste in their mouth, or it kind of gave us confidence, and that game has kind of set what this series has become, I guess.”
That first meeting, at the end of March last year, was gargantuan. LAFC had a three-goal advantage after 48 minutes, but LA pecked away, getting goals from Sebastian Lletget in the 61st minute and Chris Pontius in the 73rd, setting the scene for Zlatan Ibrahimovic's genius.
The Swedish star, coming off the bench for the final 20 minutes to make his MLS debut, netted the equalizer on a stunning 35-yard volley in the 77th, then nodded home the winner in stoppage time. The next two meetings last year were draws – 2-2 at the Banc, 1-1 at Dignity Health Sports Park – and this year has gone similarly.
Ibrahimovic's hat trick carried the Galaxy to a 3-2 win three months ago at DHSP, and he scored two more to prod LA to a two-goal lead before LAFC rallied behind Carlos Vela for a 3-3 draw. This time there has to be a winner, and the Galaxy think they might have an edge.
“I mean, they never beat us, so maybe we have a little bit advantage [psychologically]. I think so,” said winger Romain Alessandrini, just back from a knee injury that sidelined him since April. “Right now, it's the playoffs. The crowd will be on fire, I think, and I think it's going to be the biggest game of the season, of the MLS season. We have to play our best, we have to play aggressive, we have to play better than we played in [the 2-1 victory at] Minnesota, because I think we played bad. And we can do better.
“And if we want to win [the MLS Cup trophy], we have to beat LAFC anyway, so this is a good time.”
Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto says the past won't mean much once the whistle blows, and urged his team to come out sharp just as they have to good effect in previous showdowns.
“Maybe, I don't know, [the results are] in the head for them,” he said, “but in the head for us, we need to know who we are going to play and try to get the best for us on the pitch and try to win, because it's just about 90 minutes and get the [conference] final [with a win].”
“We must be aggressive 90 minutes.”
Slowing down LAFC's attack is vital. Vela scored an MLS-record 34 goals and assisted 15 more, fellow Designated Players Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez add to the dynamism and they benefit from excellent support from Latif Blessing, Adama Diomande and Lee Nguyen, among others.
Dealing with LAFC's flank play is vital if the Galaxy are to prevail.
“Luckily, we get to go against [Cristian] Pavon and Ibra and Romain in practice, so you kind of get used to it, I guess,” Romney said. “But, I mean, [Vela has] scored 30-something goals and had 20 assists or whatever he did for a reason. The guy's really good, and he's going to make you look stupid at times. It's just limiting how many times he makes you look stupid.”
The Galaxy have tremendous respect for LAFC and what they’ve achieved this year, but they've been the better team when they go head to head, and that means something.
“History doesn't lie,” Alessandrini said. “LAFC make a great, great season, and we have to respect that. But we are the LA Galaxy, and we have to win.”