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Column: No hype is necessary to sell ‘El Trafico,’ the LAFC vs. Galaxy rivalry

Galaxy midfielder Uriel Antuna, left, and LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta battle for the ball during the first half on Aug. 25.
Galaxy midfielder Uriel Antuna and LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta battle for the ball during the first half on Aug. 25.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

There’s nothing to which the game can be compared because there’s never been anything like it in Los Angeles.

Not in soccer.

Some of the sport’s most historic moments in this country have taken place in this region, from World Cup finals to the openings of two soccer-specific stadiums to the introduction of David Beckham to a new audience.

The anticipated second-round MLS playoff showdown between LAFC and the Galaxy will lack the grandeur of those previous events. But it’s precisely the absence of any trappings that demonstrate the degree to which the teams have become part of the local culture.
There’s no hyperbole, no misleading hype, no Freddy Adu.

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Just a soccer game on Thursday at Banc of California Stadium.

The team that compiled the best regular-season record in the league’s 24-year history is opening its postseason against a crosstown rival it has never beaten.

That’s it.

Imagine that: In a country in which the sport was never supposed to catch on, soccer is finally in the business of selling soccer.

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And it’s working.

After the Galaxy won in Minnesota on Sunday to secure a date with top-seeded LAFC, the cheapest tickets for the second-round match at Banc of California Stadium were selling on the secondary market for almost $200. That was more than the asking price for the least expensive tickets to the season-opening game between the Lakers and Clippers on Tuesday.

To accommodate the 300-plus reporters covering the game, LAFC will have risers in its press box and provide overflow seating on its concourses.

“The fact that now we can play this big game in this incredible stadium against the rival from Los Angeles, I think that’s fantastic,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said.

From the time Bradley agreed to be LAFC’s first coach, he has emphasized developing an offensive style of play, as well as a connection with the fans. The team has succeeded on both fronts.

As an expansion team last year, LAFC was in third place in the Western Conference standings while finishing second in the entire league in scoring.

Bradley’s team did even better this season, establishing a single-season record for points and goal differential. With forward Carlos Vela scoring a league-record 34 goals, LAFC matched the single-season goal record of 85 set by the Galaxy in 1998.

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The atmosphere at Banc of California Stadium is one of the most festive in MLS.

“We’re playing a great team on their field,” Galaxy midfielder Jonathan dos Santos said in Spanish.

As much success as LAFC has enjoyed in its first two seasons, it has never defeated the Galaxy.

The Galaxy missed the playoffs in 2017 and 2018. The team was once considered MLS royalty, but the league was a different place then. When the Galaxy won the first of its five MLS Cups in 2002, there were only 10 teams and the majority of them were owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group. The Galaxy was the league’s crown jewel and AEG treated it as such.

Even as AEG gradually divested itself of its other franchises, the Galaxy remained a top team into this decade, with the team paying top dollar for the likes of Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.

The latest signing in that tradition was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. No player has influenced the LAFC-Galaxy rivalry more than the Swedish striker, who has scored eight times in five games against LAFC. The Galaxy is 2-0-3 in those contests.

Ibrahimovic scored a hat trick in a 3-2 victory for the Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park in July. He scored twice in a 3-3 draw at Banc of California Stadium in late August.

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Ibrahimovic finished the regular season with 30 goals, second only to Vela. The Galaxy was eighth in the Western Conference standings.

LAFC captain Carlos Vela had the most prolific season in MLS history in 2019, scoring a single-season record 34 goals. Here are five of his best.

“I’m pretty sure they are afraid of us,” Galaxy midfielder Romain Alessandrini told The Times’ Kevin Baxter following his team’s first-round win in Minnesota.

LAFC midfielder Lee Nguyen scoffed when relayed Alessandrini’s words.

“We’re the best team in MLS right now,” Nguyen said. “We ain’t afraid of nobody.”

Bradley has described the match as a clash of styles, ideas and cultures.

“Our football is to try to take control of games, try to win the ball back, try to control as much of the game as possible,” Bradley said. “So we’re going to try again.”

The opponents are expected to take a more conservative approach.

“The Galaxy is more direct than us,” LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta said. “They look for mistakes. They are a little opportunistic with dangerous players in front.”

However the game unfolds, there should be goals. The teams have combined for 24 goals in their five games against each other.

“The game will be distinct from the regular season,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “It’s 90 minutes that determine each team’s future. There will be more concerns and more caution, but with the quality of players on the field, it will be a game with a lot of goals.”

As the teams’ platforms have elevated, the consequences have grown. When LAFC was upset by Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs last year, the loss barely registered in Los Angeles. The public will be less forgiving of such a misstep this time. Win the MLS Cup and LAFC could cement its place as the greatest team in league history. Lose to the Galaxy and Bradley’s team could instead be known as soccer’s version of the Dodgers.


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