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Best of the West and East will face off when LAFC takes on D.C. United

March 30, 2019: Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) celebrates his goal during the MLS game betw
LAFC forward Carlos Vela celebrates his goal against the San Jose Earthquakes in San Jose.
(Chris Brown / Cal Sport Media via Associated Press)

The Los Angeles Football Club and D.C. United have a lot in common.

Six weeks into the season, both are unbeaten and atop their respective conferences. Both are led by international veterans — LAFC by Carlos Vela, United by Wayne Rooney — who were finalists for league MVP in their first MLS campaigns last year. And while LAFC leads the league in goals scored with 15, United is the best in goals allowed with one.

“They’re riding high,” United defender Chris McCann said. “We’re on a good run.”

One of those streaks figures to give way on Saturday when the teams meet in a nationally televised afternoon matinee at Audi Field in what could be a preview of bigger games to come.

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“I don’t want to say any predictions for MLS Cup or anything,” LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “But this could be a matchup in the future.

“East versus West. We’re both at high points in our seasons. You always want to test yourself against another team that’s doing well, just so that you can say this is where you stand at this point.”

Despite their early success, neither team comes into the game at full strength. LAFC (4-0-1) is missing starting midfielder Lee Nguyen (calf) and designated player Andre Horta (quadriceps). United (3-0-1), unbeaten in its last 11 regular-season games at home, will be without left back Joseph Mora, who underwent surgery after breaking his jaw and sustaining a concussion in Sunday’s win over Orlando City.

But both will have their captains, the men teammates say are most responsible for each team’s stellar start.

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Vela, a Mexican international, tops the league with six goals, two better than Rooney, the all-time leading scorer for Manchester United and the English national team. The two also entered the weekend tied for the league lead in assists with three.

But the numbers only tell part of the story. LAFC players are effusive in their praise of Vela’s leadership, both on and off the field.

“We’ll go as far as he takes us,” forward Christian Ramirez said. “He’s a very likable guy. He’s never going to be in your face yelling at you. He leads by example.

“But when he gets going, everybody knows that he means business. People don’t really see how much of a leader he is.”

United keeper Bill Hamid, who started the season with three shutouts and 435 consecutive scoreless minutes, credits Rooney with a turnaround that has seen his team go from a 20-loss season in 2017 to the top of the conference this year.

“Every MLS team, when they bring in a superstar, it kind of wakes up the locker room. It’s like an espresso shot,” said Hamid, who returned to United from Danish Superliga club FC Midtjylland last August, just as the team was beginning a streak that would see it go 14-2-5 with Rooney.

“When I came back, I noticed a huge change in the locker room. Guys doing their small responsibilities, being on time. Things just shifted from before I left.”

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Rooney shrugged off the compliment but admitted he goes about his job a certain way. If teammates want to follow, he’s happy to lead.

“We get paid a lot of money. The least we can do is show up on time,” he said. “The players obviously need to abide by the rules.

“A lot of people at the football club put a lot of hard work in to getting things right for us. The least we can do is show them the respect and be on time.”

For LAFC and D.C. United, the hour of truth comes Saturday afternoon.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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