The MLS standings show that LAFC is the best in the league. But whenever it meets the crosstown rival, the scoreboard tells another story — as it did Sunday when the Galaxy withstood a furious second-half rally to earn a 3-3 tie before a raucous crowd of 22,757 at Banc of California Stadium.
That left LAFC winless in five editions of El Trafico, as the rivalry is known, and it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who kept it that way, scoring twice in the first 16 minutes to give the Galaxy a lead LAFC couldn’t overcome.
And it’s a draw that may prove to be a big loss for LAFC after Carlos Vela, the league’s leading scorer, was taken out of the game in the 61st minute with a hamstring injury. He will have an MRI exam on Monday, and that looms as the most important test of the season for LAFC since Vela has scored or assisted on 42 of the team’s 74 goals this season.
Losing him for an extended period could prove devastating.
But while LAFC was licking its wounds, Ibrahimovic found little to celebrate in a draw that left the Galaxy tied for fourth in the Western Conference, just five points from missing the playoffs for a third straight year.
“One point means nothing,” he said.
His coach, whose team has won only one of its last six games, disagreed.
“We played a great first half,” Guillermo Barros Schelotto said in Spanish. “Our first objective is to get to the playoffs. We still have seven games left. We’re going to be in this fight to the finish.”
The Galaxy certainly fought to the finish Sunday despite nearly letting the game get away in a second half in which they were outshot 13-2 and failed to put a shot on goal. So it fell to Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham to keep the numbers on the scoreboard equal, making seven saves.
“They haven’t got us yet,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “We’re walking away with a point. It’s a positive.”
Last summer’s El Trafico at Banc of California was marred by several scuffles between fans of the teams in and around the stadium. To avoid a repeat, LAFC doubled the security force to approximately 800.
The game wasn’t even two minutes old before Ibrahimovic put the Galaxy in front, slicing between defenders Eddie Segura and Steven Beitashour to collect a Cristian Pavon pass inside the penalty area, then putting a left-footed shot just inside the left post.
LAFC’s Latif Blessing matched that 10 minutes later, heading in a one-handed clearance from Bingham at the far post. But the tie didn’t last long with Ibrahimovic, then Pavon, scoring a minute apart to give the Galaxy a two-goal lead after just 16 minutes.
The Pavon score was his first in MLS while Ibrahimovic’s brace gave him 22 goals this year, matching his total from last season. He also has six in his last three games, and he celebrated both scores Sunday by striking a Megan Rapinoe-like victory pose, facing the LAFC supporters’ section with his hands held wide, high about his head.
It was just the second time this season LAFC (19-3-5) had faced a two-goal deficit — the first coming against the Galaxy (13-11-3) five weeks ago. Blessing cut the advantage to 3-2 in first-half stoppage time, pouncing on the rebound of a blocked shot to give LAFC a boost heading into halftime.
Vela needed eight minutes of the second half to find the equalizer, beating Bingham with a left-footed shot from the right wing for his MLS-best 27th goal of the season. Eight minutes later he was subbed off, a move that appeared to pain him more than his hamstring did. Vela angrily threw his captain’s armband to the ground, then punched at a row of water bottles behind the bench.
LAFC kept the pressure up without Vela, taking 11 shots after he left, although none of them got past Bingham. But for LAFC coach Bob Bradley, whose team’s five-game winning streak was snapped, the problem wasn’t with how the game ended, but how it started.
“Early in the game we didn’t make plays,” he said.
In the bigger picture, Bradley said he’s trying to build something that will endure beyond one half or even one season. And the Galaxy are making that difficult.
“To be something that’s really going to stand, that’s not easy,” he said. “This thing of beating the Galaxy, that hasn’t come easy.”