Sports rivalries can’t be manufactured.
The best are born of genuine passion, often based on geography and almost always steeping for years in a stew of mutual contempt. If a rivalry can take on especially spicy seasoning from a playoff meeting in which one team ended the other team’s season, as the Kings did to the Ducks in a dramatic seven-game series in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, so much the better for the fans and the teams and the drama.
The Galaxy and LAFC don’t have the benefit of a long history against each other, and they don’t have the memories of a painful postseason ending to motivate one side or the other. LAFC is in only its second season of existence and the team still is writing the story of its remarkable emergence as an MLS power. But the renewal of their local rivalry was a fiery and colorful spectacle at Dignity Health Sports Park on Friday, even if LAFC has yet to beat the longer-established Galaxy. Ever the showman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic responded to the hype that had built during the week by scoring a hat trick — one goal with his right foot, one with his left, and one with his head — to fuel the Galaxy’s 3-2 victory and give his team two wins and two ties in its four encounters with upstart LAFC.
“You can’t beat us,” Galaxy fans chanted as the clock ticked toward 90 minutes, and the truth was on their side because Ibrahimovic was on their side.
“I have confidence and I believe in myself,” he said afterward. “People call it arrogant, I call it confidence. Ignorant people call it arrogant, intelligent people call it confidence.”
And yes, he has always been confident. “Since I started to play football,” he said. “I believe so much in myself I have a bullet-proof mind. When I go out there I know what I’m able to do, and I do it good. I do it perfect.”
No arguing there.
Nicknamed “El Trafico” as a play on the name “El Clasico” given to longstanding rivalries between teams in Europe and South America — and as a play on the ever-present traffic here — Friday’s match started at a high level and featured a little bit of everything on a rapidly cooling summer night.
Star power? MLS goalscoring leader Carlos Vela’s 20th goal in 20 games this season, scored on a penalty kick, got LAFC going. Ibrahimovic’s brilliant individual effort brought the Galaxy even at 1-1 four minutes later, in the eighth minute, but Ibrahimovic bristled when asked if he had been fired up by Vela’s goal.
“Please do not offend me,” Ibrahimovic said, almost sniffing in contempt. “I don’t need to prove nothing, even if I don’t score the goals. I have a lot of respect for Vela. He is a good player. But you did one mistake — you compared him with me. That was your biggest mistake.”
Ibrahimovic made another masterful move to head home the go-ahead goal in the 56th minute, off a pass from Diego Polenta. And although Vela is all but sure to be the voted the league’s most valuable player, Ibrahimovic stole the show Friday night and he knew it: after his bouncer found the back of the net in the 70th minute for a 3-1 lead he ran toward the stands, arms extended as he soaked in the applause and roars, he and his team reigning for one night in a good but generally inconsistent season. “Today we win and showed that when we want it, we can do it,” he said.
Great saves? LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller made three acrobatic stops in quick succession in the sixth minute before Ibrahimovic beat him the first time.
Emotion? The action rarely flagged in pace or intensity. Every tackle seemed to have extra oomph behind it, including several that had the victims writhing in apparent death throes before they sprang back up in miraculous recovery. The Galaxy were issued five yellow cards and LAFC players got three, and there might have been more. Tempers flared after Ibrahimovic’s third goal but peace of sorts was kept.
Atmosphere? It was electric from start to finish, with the addition of a twist from LAFC supporters. Playing off their chosen theme of “A call to arms,” and the idea they were invading enemy territory, many initially wore camouflage shirts over their black-and-gold LAFC gear and supplemented their outfits with chants referencing that theme. They spilled over beyond the visiting team’s allotted sections and filled the opposite corner, too, jumping and waving their arms and waving flags. They were outnumbered by Galaxy fans, but the LAFC fans seemed louder and never stopped cheering, even after Vela made it close during injury time but couldn’t bring LAFC level.
Ibrahimovic said he felt a lot of responsibility to help his team, and he lived up to that responsibility. That’s what the longest-standing and most meaningful rivalries do: They push individuals and teams to heights they might not have realized they could reach, Ibrahimovic’s cold confidence aside.
More El Trafico, please. This is a rivalry to enjoy now and to continue enjoying as it ages and adds milestones and memories to Friday’s classic.