Zlatan, LA Galaxy celebrate vs LAFC - 03/31/2018
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The inside story of what made first El Trafico matchup one of MLS's greatest ever games

EDITOR'S NOTE: The first El Trafico between the LA Galaxy and LAFC will be replayed in full on FS1 on Monday at 8 pm ET, with an encore presentation at 1 am ET. On Tuesday, to mark the two-year anniversary, the game will be shown as part of MLS Classics: Remix at 4 pm ET. Former LAFC player Benny Feilhaber, former Galaxy player Chris Pontius, Calen Carr and David Gass will provide alternative commentary via KISWE’s innovative live streaming technology. The game will also be shown on Tuesday at 9 pm ET on FOX Deportes.


Almost everything that could have happened actually happened and that doesn’t happen often. Really ever.

Two years ago to the day on Tuesday, the LA Galaxy and LAFC lived up to the hype. The cliche in soccer is that the big games are the ones where the smallest amount of things happen. It is a cliche that often holds true. 

But then there are moments like the first match between the Galaxy and LAFC. When reality surpasses hype you get a generational moment that sets the standard for what a big match can be. You get a moment so deservedly selfish in taking attention and wonder that for a while it kind of ruins other moments. 

The hype started in the streets. LAFC’s motto of “street by street, block by block” had resulted in a legitimate foothold and legitimate tension within the city’s soccer fandom. Then the BIG MEDIA came in and stoked the fire to hell and back and all of a sudden you had a match that had snagged everyone’s attention and a match with a brand new nickname. 

“First, I want to say,” Jimmy Lopez, president of LAFC’s supporters’ union, The 3252, said. “That on our end, from everybody on behalf of 3252. we hate the name ‘El Trafico.’”

Look, sometimes you get what you get. Sometimes you get a nickname you don’t like. And even if it’s dismissed at a local level, the name gave the match a definitive brand for everyone elsewhere to latch on to. As goofy as it may be, it helped get everyone intrigued. 

It also helped that LAFC had already shown signs of being the absolute buzzsaw it would become the next year. The expansion side won in Seattle in its first-ever game, then thrashed Real Salt Lake on the road, 5-1. Now they were coming to Los Angeles for the first time. Kind of. Some fans would be quick to point out they were making a short drive to Carson. 

And then, of course, there was the arrival of … well, we’ll get there. 

The match sold out. They probably could have doubled the size of Dignity Health Sports Park and sold out. It helped that fans of the newest L.A. club were more than ready to make a statement.

“It's like, okay, let's show the world what we got,” Lopez said. “We were just eager because the rivalry was born before we even hit the pitch. If they would've sold us more tickets, I guarantee you there would have been black and gold, like no other. Everybody wanted to be there.”

With over 2,000 opposing fans in the building and anxious to (metaphorically) punch the popular kid on the block in the mouth, the day felt different before the first whistle even blew. Lines had officially been drawn in the city.

“When I think we all came out for warmups or even before that you could see like, ‘Oh, who made their decision?’” the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget said. “You had their group of fans and you had our group of fans. And so it was like that defining moment, you know what I mean? Like you're on that side. I'm on this side.”

Along with Lletget, Galaxy players like winger Chris Pontius couldn’t help but notice a little more noise accompanying his pre-game stretch.

“I think when I kind of sensed what it would be going out to warm-up. They already had I believe around 2,000 packed in there loud 45 minutes to an hour before game time. That's when I was like, ‘Ok, this is bigger than I kind of thought it would be.’” Pontius said. “To say that this game was just like another game would be criminal to what it's become and to what that game was. There was just a different hype around it and it’s one that as a player you get up for.” 

Admittedly, it looked initially like only one team had actually gotten up for it. Carlos Vela, in particular, looked like he’d been up and waiting for this game and this game alone his entire life. 

His first goal came five minutes in. A 20-yard left-footed curler to the top left corner that made your body tense while it floated through the air until you could finally exhale as it met the net.

His second goal came just over 20 minutes later and again it was special. If the game had ended 2-0, a neutral watcher would likely have felt satisfied. Two world-class goals is all you can ask for, right? 

Down two goals, the Galaxy players still felt like they had a chance to turn the game around going into the half. They just had to come out and execute. Three minutes into the second half they were down three goals. 

On top of a future MVP and MLS record holder going nuclear, the Galaxy now had to overcome a three-goal deficit without all three of their DPs. The dos Santos brothers and Romain Alessandrini were out hurt. The new kid on the block had delivered their hit to the mouth and the Galaxy were missing a huge amount of firepower. All things considered, it couldn’t get worse. And that’s what made it get better.

“You just kinda have to dig deep even if things aren't going right. You just gotta look at one another and be like, ‘It can't get worse than this. Let's just go for it. Let's just literally go for it. Like, forget tactics, forget, you know, let's just play free,” Lletget said. “Of course, people probably look at that and be like, ‘Oh, you should play free from the beginning.’ But the game is more complicated than that. You always want to be in that flow, but sometimes you just need to get punched in the face.”

In the 61st minute, Lletget and his new nihilistic sense of freedom got the Galaxy back in the game when the USMNT midfielder fired the ball into the back of the net.

Momentum began to shift. And LAFC knew that bigger things were still yet to come. He just had to finish warming up first.

“You just sensed the tide completely change in their favor. You're at their place and their crowd has woken up,” former LAFC player Steven Beitashour said. “You know, people don't believe in momentum unless you really play the sport part of it. And it just, the entire momentum switched when they got that goal and then Zlatan is coming on for his first game.”

Yes, that’s right, Zlatan.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had only been in town for a couple of days. He landed at LAX on Thursday, went through a light training session on Friday and then the match started at noon on Saturday. 

Before he came to Los Angeles. though, he, of course, had to announce his coming presence. The first way was simple. A full-page ad in the LA Times with a five-word message: Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.

“That's all Ibra. That's how he rolls,” the Galaxy’s VP of marketing, communications and digital Brendan Hannan said. “He wanted to make a splash with his arrival. We helped with the facilitation of it, but that’s all Zlatan.”

The second way required a little more planning. And a lion. 

“I woke up at around three in the morning. I'm in LA and I call a couple of places in the United Kingdom. Luckily the second place I called they were able to rent me a lion named Artist for 2,500 pounds,” Hannan said. 

After getting ethical approval from Humane Hollywood, Hannan flew to Manchester to meet two lions. Excluding two infinite seconds after a lighting mishap where Artist could have been anywhere in a pitch-black room, the shoot went off without a hitch.

“We shot with the lion for about 45 minutes and then, Zlatan showed up in his Volvo by himself, completely unassuming,” Hannan said. “He looked at the lion, looked at the footage of the lion, had a bunch of great insight on the lions, and then we shot with him and that was it.” 

The video received over two million views. If the hype for the game had been growing at the grassroots level, it exploded with the addition of one of the world’s most famous players. Even if he might only play for a few minutes and even if he had only met his teammates the day before.

“Obviously we knew who he was and obviously the big arrival that it was for the team, for the club and for the league,” Lletget said. “He was cool. He didn't honestly know many of us, but kept it short and didn't want to really talk about it, he just wanted to be more about the action. I think all of us respected that and he showed it in the time that he was here.”

Ibrahimovic subbed on in the 71st minute. In the 73rd minute, Pontius connected with a gorgeous diving header to make it 3-2. 

Four minutes later Ibrahimovic scored one of the most famous goals in MLS history. 

“99.99% of the people in the world would never even think to try and do that,” Pontius said. “And then the few for the small percentage that would think to do it, still can't pull it off. Where people don't give Ibra enough credit for is how smart he is and the way he thinks through the game. I'm sure that he had honestly watched from the sideline and seen that the goalie was off his line and kind of just registered that in his mind and then went for it.”

There’s no reason to even try to describe it. It’s a goal that needs to be seen — and heard. Nothing will ever capture it better than John Strong’s incredulous shout of “Come on.” It is one of the few honest to God Moments in the history of MLS. Although, there might be some debate as to whether it should have happened in the first place. At least from one side of the rivalry. 

“For me [the missed header from Ola Kamara is] 100% a foul.” Beitashour said. “Ola Kamara looks right at Dejan Jakovic and just takes him out. So we all kind of look at the ref like, ‘Hey, what's going on?’ Then Zlatan does what he does. He perfectly strikes the ball and it goes in. We're all kind of confused by it because we thought the whistle was coming, but it didn't and we didn’t play through until we heard it.”

Either way, the score was 3-3 and momentum hadn’t just shifted toward the Galaxy, it had swung all the way toward the inevitable. In the first minute of stoppage time, Ibrahimovic scored a towering header to win the match. Because of course he did. 

The winner cemented the game as one of the best in league history — if it wasn’t already — and as an unforgettable day for the city of Los Angeles. 

“It was a special day for the city. I remember leading up to that game, you know, just nobody really had an idea of how it was gonna pan out as far as the atmosphere let alone the game itself,” Lletget said. “If you got the LAFC players even though they came up on the shorter end in the stick in that game, I think, I think moving forward they also will admit how much it added, you know, to the game itself and for the league.”

He’s right.

“I mean, as far as the week goes, as far as fans go how much more exciting can it get?” Beitashour said. “If you’re asking me, it was terrible. You're asking a Galaxy player, it was amazing. You're asking any other fans? Neutral fan? They’re going to say that game was unbelievable, so it definitely has to be a top-five regular-season game.”

Two years on, it all seems just as insane as it did in the moments after it ended. A surreal outcome that even those involved have a hard time comprehending. 

“I go back and I can tell you pretty much everything that happened during that game after the game,” Pontius, who retired at the end of the 2019 season, said. “People in the locker room were kind of struggling to come to terms with what happened. “I remember sitting in the car with my wife after and just saying, ‘I cannot believe that happened.’”

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