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It’s only three games old, but the Galaxy-LAFC rivalry is already the best in town

It’s only three games old, but the Galaxy-LAFC rivalry is already the best in town
Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic argues with an official. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The referee drew an imaginary rectangle in the air with his two index fingers and the packed stands at StubHub Center unleashed a roar that was louder than anything that will be heard at any Chargers game this season.

Jair Marrufo had signaled for a video replay.

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The crowd already knew what Marrufo was about to make official: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 15th-minute shot crossed the goal line before it was cleared by Danilo Silva.

And it was like this the entire night, the announced crowd of 27,068 fans vocally erupting in response to every tackle, every step-over and every shot in the Galaxy’s 1-1 draw with the expansion Los Angeles Football Club on Friday night.

The Lakers and Clippers will play each other four times this season and none of their games will be contested in such an atmosphere.

The Dodgers and Angels can’t inspire that level of intensity. Neither can USC and UCLA nor the Rams and the Chargers.

The Rams and kind-of hometown Raiders attracted a spirited audience to the Coliseum last week, but Rams fans were too far outnumbered by their Raiders counterparts to create the kind of back-and-forth revelry seen at StubHub Center on Friday.

Maybe only the Kings and Ducks can produce something similar. And that’s a maybe.

The Galaxy and LAFC have played only three games against each other and their crosstown rivalry has already distinguished itself from anything comparable on the local sporting landscape. About the only underwhelming aspect of these games is their nickname, “El Trafico.”

Soccer has forever been the sport of the future, and while the future might not be here yet, it’s close. Games such as these are moving up the timeline.

Los Angeles barely cared about the Galaxy when it was the only team in town. The Galaxy were supposed to be further diminished by the arrival of LAFC, which had stylish merchandise, celebrity owners and a more centrally located stadium.

Except the opposite has happened.

The Galaxy’s brand has been enhanced by the newcomers on the other side of town.

The Galaxy missed the playoffs last year and were in danger of doing so again this year. The team’s turnaround was more than a point of pride because of LAFC’s presence; it became a necessity for survival.

And their games against LAFC have provided the Galaxy with an elevated platform to showcase this improved product, which is now headlined by the irrepressible Ibrahimovic.

What makes this rivalry work is the soccer. The contrasting styles of the teams have already produced three compelling games.

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It’s often said in soccer that you can throw out the teams’ records in a rivalry match, and that’s been the case so far here, with the Galaxy performing better than expected against the favored expansion team each time. With a 1-0-2 record, the Galaxy won the season series.

Ibrahimovic was the star of the initial encounter, scoring twice in 20 minutes to lead the Galaxy to a 4-3 comeback victory at StubHub Center. LAFC was similarly in control of the second match, only to settle for a 2-2 draw after giving up a pair of goals in the final eight minutes.

The Galaxy limped into the latest meeting, as they were only six days removed from a crushing 5-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. The team was also without four of its regular starters: Gio and Jonathan dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Michael Ciani.

LAFC was set up to attack, as it continued to play a couple of natural No. 10s in Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen as its central midfielders. But it was the more classically aligned Galaxy that controlled the action early, their compact defense limiting the number of dangerous chances LAFC created while starting attacks of their own.

LAFC ceded the majority of possession to the Galaxy in the second half but created more chances. The visitors equalized on a penalty kick by Carlos Vela in the 51st minute.

Vela trotted over to the northwest corner of the stadium, where LAFC’s fans were gathered. The black-clad crowd there was already chanting in unison some two hours before the start of the game. LAFC’s fans were let into the stadium early to avoid any potential conflicts with Galaxy fans.

Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid said he was surprised by how LAFC’s fans were allowed to buy entire sections of seats so close to the field.

“I know in other places where I’ve coached that usually the visiting supporters are as far from the field as possible,” Schmid said. “So maybe that’s what we’ll have a look at.”

The teams could meet again in the playoffs. And even if they don’t, Schmid should have countless opportunities to banish the visiting fans into the corners of the second deck. As much as the rivalry feels as if it’s fully developed, it’s still in its infancy. There are plenty of more games to come.

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