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El Tráfico returns, with LAFC and Galaxy each in need of a boost

The Galaxy's Sebastian Lletget prepares to send a crossing pass to a teammate.
Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget during the July 18, 2020, edition of the El Tráfico rivalry series against LAFC.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

The El Tráfico nickname pinned on the Galaxy-LAFC soccer rivalry was inspired by the 12 miles of freeway gridlock separating the Southern California neighbors. The label has never been more appropriate than it will be for Saturday’s matchup at Banc of California Stadium since neither team has moved forward in weeks.

The Galaxy (11-8-2) briefly led the Western Conference two weeks ago, but they’ve lost two in a row for the first time this season to drop to fourth in the standings.

LAFC (6-9-5) is in worse shape. It has lost a franchise-worst four straight and hasn’t won in five weeks, falling to ninth place and out of the playoff picture. The seven-game winless slide is also a franchise worst.

That makes Saturday’s game, the 12th in the intercity derby, the first in which both teams will enter carrying regular-season losing streaks.

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Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, whose team leads the series 5-3-3, said all that history goes out the window once the whistle blows.

The Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic were among 26 players called up for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

“A rivalry game, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve won your last two games, lost the last two games, drawn them,” he said. “Anything can happen in these games. It’s a one-off game and whoever wants it more will generally win.”

Bond said he highlighted the LAFC games when he signed with MLS last January. He already has played in one El Tráfico, before a socially distanced crowd of 7,193 at Dignity Health Sports Park in May.

Saturday’s game, before an expected sellout crowd that will include LAFC’s raucous 3252 supporters’ group, will be different.

Los Angeles’ greatest sports fan Mo Fascio, a unifying force and spine of the LAFC club, is honored after losing his battle with COVID-19.

“I’m kind of really looking forward to playing in that kind of atmosphere and in their stadium,” he said. “It’s a nice challenge and one of the games I looked forward to most when I looked at the fixtures.”

Bond, who spent the first decade of his career in England, said rivalry games bring with them a different focus and vibe.

“The human aspect of it comes in and there’s just a lot more emotion in the game,” he said. “You find that extra bit of motivation. If you bottle how you feel for a rivalry game and just repeat it every week, then you’d be a robot and all the games would be the same.”

Both teams will be missing their biggest stars. Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the Galaxy’s leading scorer, hasn’t played since June 26 because of a calf injury. LAFC captain Carlos Vela came out of his team’s last game because of a quadriceps strain. Both skipped this week’s MLS-Liga MX All-Star activities, making them ineligible for Saturday, although it’s unlikely either would have been available for selection anyway.

Vela leads LAFC with five assists and is second with five goals, so his absence will be felt by a team that has struggled to score. LAFC tied the MLS single-season record for goals and shattered the mark for goal differential en route to a Supporters’ Shield two years ago, but it hasn’t scored more than twice in a game this season and has conceded more goals than it has scored.

For coach Bob Bradley, whose team has scored only once from open play in the past month, winning a rivalry game could provide the spark to fix that.

“For an individual, it’s a big play at an important time,” he said. “It’s Diego [Rossi] scoring a big goal when it really matters and getting his confidence back. It’s defensively making a play late in the game to ensure a win. We need the right play at the right time and I think you’ll see guys breathe easier and be ready to have some joy.

The MLS-Liga MX All-Star game and festivities showed a potential marriage that could benefit both leagues.

“It’s the Galaxy, it’s a derby, the understanding of the intensity, the understanding of the importance for our fans, all those things are front and center.”

LAFC midfielder José Cifuentes, who will join the Ecuadoran national team for World Cup qualifying after Saturday’s game, said he agreed.

“We know we’re not where we need to be,” he said in Spanish. “But our locker room is united, thinking about what’s coming. With this game we would love to get a good result to begin to turn things around.”

That, he hopes, will alleviate the traffic.


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