The 2018 season and the LAFC franchise were just three weeks old when the unbeaten MLS expansion team traveled to Carson to meet the Galaxy for the first time.
What unfolded on that hot, sunny Saturday afternoon in March instantly turned the Southern California derby — dubbed El Trafico — into the league’s most intense rivalry.
Trailing, 3-0, early in the second half, the Galaxy rallied for an improbable 4-3 victory. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who made his MLS debut off the bench for the home team, scored the tying goal on a 40-yard volley and the winner on a header in stoppage time.
With the teams returning to Dignity Health Sports Park on Friday for their first meeting of 2019, Times reporter Kevin Baxter interviewed a cross section of fans, players, coaches, broadcasters and club executives for this oral history of one of the most memorable games in recent MLS history.
More than 90 minutes before kickoff, a couple of thousand LAFC supporters marched into the stadium, took their places in the northwest corner of the grandstand and didn’t sit down or be quiet for more than three hours, creating an atmosphere unlike any other at the Galaxy’s stadium.
Dominic Kinnear, Galaxy assistant coach: Walking on the field it was a different game, 100%. The only thing I could maybe equate it to would be an MLS Cup final.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Galaxy forward: If you have experience in Europe playing the derbies — the El Clasico you have in Spain, the Milano derby, Marseilles-PSG, United-Liverpool — you feel the heat. That keeps me alive, that keeps me on my toes.
Cary Hall, Galaxy fan: At our seats in Row F of Section 110, a premium section, we were surrounded by LAFC fans. It honestly felt like we were at an away game.
Dave Denholm, LAFC broadcaster: Before the match, my producer and I were overlooking the concourse. LAFC’s fans were let in early and they were rolling by singing like we had never heard yet. I just thought, “Wow! This is amazing.” Just hundreds of fans. That just got me pumped up. I knew it would be something special.
Jimmy Lopez, LAFC fan: We had so many years of waiting for this to happen. Now it was here. … This was something we helped create. It was a different vibe, a different feel.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela scored first when he curled a left-footed shot in from the top of the box in the fifth minute. He then doubled the lead 21 minutes later on a right-footed shot from the center of the penalty area that kissed the underside of the crossbar and went in. On the TV broadcast, Fox Soccer analyst Stuart Holden said, “We might have to call this the one-way Trafico because it’s been all LAFC.”
Chris Pontius, Galaxy forward: We didn’t start the game particularly well. We didn’t manage the game in terms of playing at our tempo and they were on the front foot. So coming back in at halftime it was like, “OK, we got our cage rattled a little bit but let’s figure out a way back in.”
Lopez: At the half it definitely did feel like this is our game.
Denholm: LAFC got off to such a good start on the season. As an expansion team though I was still kind of surprised at how well they were playing. It seemed as though, honestly, it was more that the Galaxy were shocked. LAFC was playing well but it looked more to me like the Galaxy just couldn’t find their footing early in that game.
Less than three minutes into the second half, Steres deflected in a Marcos Urena pass intended for Vela and it was 3-0 LAFC.
Kinnear: So 3-0 you’re like, “Holy smokes. This isn’t going so well.” And there was the chanting in the stadium. LAFC was kind of having their way.
Denholm: I assumed the game was over.
Daniel Steres, Galaxy defender: For me it was kind of like a I-can’t-believe-this-happened sort of thing. But it was so early maybe it didn’t change how we were approaching it. Who knows? Maybe if that happened 20 minutes into the half, totally different feeling. Maybe a different game.
Sebastian Lletget, Galaxy midfielder: After that I was kind of like, “You know what? If this is the way it’s going to go down, let’s just go down fighting.”
Pontius: Three-nothing comebacks are pretty rare, right? So at this point it’s for pride, you know? You just don’t want to get wiped out. Especially in the first game of that rivalry.
In the 61st minute, the Galaxy’s Servando Carrasco stripped the ball from Benny Feilhaber and sent it forward for Lletget, whose right-footed volley cut the LAFC lead to 3-1.
John Thorrington, LAFC general manager: The momentum shifted certainly with the first Galaxy goal.
Steres: It felt like this complete flip. A little bit of, “OK, we’ve got some legs under us.” We weren’t necessarily outplaying them but it definitely gave us a boost.
Bob Bradley, LAFC coach: For 60 minutes we played great football, then we lost a careless ball and let them back into the game. And we paid the price.
Benny Feilhaber, former LAFC player: The biggest change was easily the 3-1 goal. I don’t even know if Ibra comes in the game if that game’s 3-0 and going the way it was. It was a perfect storm in terms of after we gave up the first goal we lost confidence, kind of sat in deep. We were playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win. My mistake, unfortunately, led to them getting a lot of life.
Steven Beitashour, LAFC defender: That one goal just opened up everything.
In the stands, fans began calling for Ibrahimovic, who was warming up along the Galaxy sideline. He had arrived from Europe just three days earlier and later admitted he was wilting in the unseasonable heat. Yet, in the 71st minute, with the Galaxy back in the game at 3-1, he came on for Lletget.
Hall: We knew the back-story. He hadn’t played in a year, coming off a devastating knee injury. He only arrived from Europe a few days before and hadn’t really practiced with the team. We figured he was only put in for show.
Lopez: He had something to prove.
Kinnear: It was a conversation with myself, [coach] Sigi [Schmid] and the fitness coach to see how many minutes he had. The score kind of pushed his inclusion into the game a little bit quicker than probably Sigi wanted. The first goal really changed the attitude. If at 3-0 you put him in, it’s just to run him around. At 3-1 you’re putting him in to get something out of the game.
Beitashour: All of a sudden everyone’s on the edge of their seat. It’s 3-1. The fans are starting to chant, “Bring on Zlatan.” And then he comes on. It changed the whole game. Being a rivalry match on the road, you know how much the fans hate each other. You know Zlatan’s coming on. We hadn’t been placed in a situation like that and we just couldn’t handle it well.
Two minutes after Ibrahimovic came on, Galaxy midfielder Ema Boateng found himself with the ball in space on the left edge of the penalty area. From there, he crossed the ball in for Pontius, whose diving header pulled the Galaxy another goal closer.
Pontius: They’re so focused on Ibra that they leave a lane for Ema to drive through. Normally a team would kind of let them have the ball on the outside but since it was Ibra standing out wide they were a little more nervous about that. And Ema uses his speed to get by and get a good cross off.
Lletget: That was when everybody was like, “Oh man, this is not over.”
Kinnear: Now the momentum, the belief, the attitude in the stadium has changed.
Four minutes later, Ibrahimovic ran onto a pass from Steres and sent a side-winding right-footed volley over LAFC keeper Tyler Miller from about 40 yards, a remarkable goal that tied the score.
Pontius: Even for people to think about shooting that ball, there’s a slim percentage to pull it off. What makes him special is he thinks outside the box. It’s creative and it’s different.
Kinnear: On the bench in the first half he caught something the goalkeeper was doing; he noticed Miller was far out. But still to actually be able to do that knowing the goalkeeper’s out of position? Aw man, it was crazy.
Beitashour: He hits that unbelievable 40-yard shot. Now guys are really on their heels. When you play like that you’re playing scared. Things don’t go well when you play scared.
Denholm: That third goal, based on the situation, was as amazing a goal as you’re going to see in MLS. I was shocked. Tyler Miller looked shocked. LAFC’s fans were shocked. I think the Galaxy fans were shocked. It really, honestly, sets up this rivalry from Day 1. This is one of the best rivalries in L.A. sports, I don’t care what anyone says. And it got there pretty quick because of that goal.
Ibrahimovic celebrated by ripping off his jersey and racing toward the endline, where he was engulfed by teammates. The lion had woken and soon he was trash-talking Vela, LAFC’s quiet leader.
Denholm: You could tell that Zlatan was really pumped up. I don’t know if Zlatan was trying to get into Vela’s head just to pump his own teammates up, to keep them going. And it worked. But I don’t think Carlos Vela even knew what was going on.
Steres: It was good to see his intensity right out of the gate. He just got here two days ago. We didn’t know what he’d be like in games or his personality. It was something that fired us up. It probably fired him up more.
Ibrahimovic: That was just a situation on the field. What happens on the field stays on the field.
The Galaxy had rallied from a 3-0 deficit to even the score. But Ibrahimovic wasn’t content with a draw. Six seconds into stoppage time, he outjumped Miller and LAFC captain Laurent Ciman to head in an Ashley Cole cross for the winning goal.
Kinnear: When he scored, I remember I was sitting next to the water cooler and I just put my head down and I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I can’t believe I’ve just seen this. At that point I was just a fan.
Ibrahimovic: The first game, I don’t think people will forget that. That will stay on.
Feilhaber: Outside of playoff games, it was one of the most awesome atmospheres that I’ve been a part of in MLS. It was pretty special. It was probably a perfect game for MLS in terms of how it all panned out. But for us it was disappointing.
Steres: Everyone you saw afterward, they couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it either and I was out there.
Thorrington: It was an amazing game for the league. It was an amazing game for everybody but LAFC in the short term. Long term it’s a part of our history and where we are now is a result of where we’ve been.
Hall: It is still hard to believe. That was the most amazing thing we have ever witnessed in soccer.
Pontius: I remember after the game just sitting in the car and being like, “I can’t believe that happened.” Coming back from three goals in any game rarely happens. In a game of that importance, for the first win in rivalry, is pretty impressive and kind of sets the stage for a new chapter on Friday.
The sources for the oral history on the dawn of the Galaxy-LAFC rivalry:
Steven Beitashour: LAFC defender and 10-year MLS veteran who has won an MLS Cup and played in the 2014 World Cup for Iran.
Bob Bradley: Former U.S. national team manager and MLS champion, now LAFC’s coach.
Dave Denholm: LAFC play-by-play radio broadcaster and host of “Soccer Weekly” on ESPN-LA 710.
Cary Hall: A Galaxy fan since the team’s inception in 1996; a season-ticket-holder since 2015.
Benny Feilhaber: A World Cup veteran and MLS Cup winner with Sporting Kansas City who has played nine seasons in MLS; he played for LAFC in the first El Trafico.
Dominic Kinnear: Galaxy assistant coach and a two-time MLS Cup-winning manager.
Sebastian Lletget: Galaxy and U.S. national team midfielder and five-season MLS veteran who scored his team’s first goal that day.
Jimmy Lopez: President of the 3252, LAFC’s independent supporters’ union.
Chris Pontius: Galaxy forward and 11-year MLS veteran who scored the team’s second goal that day.
Daniel Steres: Galaxy defender and five-season MLS veteran who set up Ibrahimovic’s first score.
John Thorrington: LAFC’s general manager and executive vice president of soccer operations; played professional in Germany, England and for three MLS teams.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Galaxy forward who scored the tying and winning goals in the first El Trafico, which also marked his MLS debut.